It’s Not the Plot, It’s the Voice. An Interview with Eric Wilson by Alex Muller

Eric Wilson Profile The Arrival Magazine
Eric Wilson Headshot by Daniel Ferguson at Sixteen Over Sixth, Winston-Salem, NC

We meet at Tate’s off 4th street. I’m running late, and as I rush from the afternoon sun through the door, the darkness of the bar is almost overwhelming. Slowly, my eyes adjust to the ceiling of string lights, and I find Eric Wilson seated down at the far end of the room, contemplating a glass of bourbon.

He looks like a rockstar, with a black sport coat, t-shirt, jeans, and boots. His hair is high and tight and silver. He looks just like he did when I first met him as a grad student in the Wake Forest University English department. “You know what I loved about being a grad student?” he had asked us during orientation, leaning back in his chair. “The professors didn’t give a shit.”

From that moment on, I was a fan. I read his essays that appeared in the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. I devoured his books of creative non-fiction: Everyone Loves a Good Trainwreck, Against Happiness, and Keeping It Fake. In his writing, I quickly found a model for how I, too, wanted to write—an encyclopedic lyricist, but also honest, direct, and kind.

His newest book of fiction, Polaris Ghost, is closer in vision to William Blake, closer in tone to David Lynch, but unmistakably still Eric Wilson, a crafted persona he parodies and ultimately dismembers.


[Noted in this interview are Alex Muller (AM) and Eric Wilson (EW). Later, they are joined by a barfly named Will. This interview has been condensed and edited, slightly, for clarity. I’ve mostly removed my own dumbass interjections of “cool,” “that’s interesting,” or “I see.” Occasionally I’ve made notes in brackets, as I did here.]


AM: Thanks again for doing this interview.

EW: I’m glad to do it. I like talking about myself

AM: Who doesn’t, right? Well, cheers to you.

EW: Cheers to you too, Alex.

AM: Now what are you drinking again?

EW: It’s a kind of bourbon.It’s called “Bulleit.” It’s called—embarrassingly—it’s called “the frontier whiskey” because the bottle looks like it might have come off the Deadwood set. And it’s not spelled “bullet” like you would expect—it’s b-u-l-l-e-i-t. [Laughs]

AM: Oh, I gotcha. That’s good. I would have spelled it the plebeian way.


EW: Of course when I think of bullet, I don’t think of the bourbon but of the great Steve McQueen film. [Spelled Bullitt, interestingly enough]. It came out in like 1967, when McQueen was at the height of his cool. He plays this kind of world-weary, melancholy, nihilistic cop who is offered the luscious love of Jacqueline Bisset. But all he cares about is his bullets. [Laughs] It’s like if Camus wrote cop films. That’s what this would be.


AM: Yeah, so I’m kind of a film novice, but I have been on a pretty big Lynch kick recently. One of the parallels that’s been drawn between Polaris Ghost and Lynch is Blue Velvet, which maybe we can talk about in a moment, but a couple of the Lynch films I’ve checked out recently have been Dune and The Art Life. So I’m interested in connecting to—well, maybe not Dune. But definitely The Art Life. Your postscript in Polaris Ghost refers to that book, which influenced Lynch and gave him the title for that documentary.


EW: So for my postscript, I made up a quote from the guy who wrote The Art Life—whose name I can’t remember at this point. But I thought it would be interesting because my epigraph was from Blake’s art teacher, Basire, which I also made up! But in doing so, I’m following the lead of Edgar Allan Poe, who more than once made up an epigraph attributed to someone real. I just love that idea of creating a kind of fake authority.


The book has what I would call a kind of gnostic sensibility, meaning it’s very much pushing against any kind of oppressive thought system. And to me, the most oppressive idea in the West is the idea of a cogent, unified, autonomous self. So the book’s interested in exploring a self as irreducibly fragmented. There’s this idea that there are authorities who pass down knowledge to individuals that shape them. I was just trying to play around with that by making up these fake authorities. And they’re kind of inside jokes because I doubt really anyone would know, which is the same as Poe—no one knows.


So, The Art Life is interesting. I did look at it at some point, even though I don’t remember the author’s name. It’s almost like a self-help book. It’s like a collection of aphorisms with this kind of “aw shucks” American spirit. It’s like if Emerson crossed with Norman Vincent Peale wrote an art book, that’s what it would be. “Get up and go today, boy! Atta boy!” Which is very Lynchian, you know. As Mel Brooks said, Lynch is Jimmy Stewart from Mars, so Lynch himself is always saying things like “golly gee” and “gee whiz!”


But that’s what makes him so weird, right? Because he’s this avant-garde filmmaker, but he comes across as if he’s still living in 1956 Montana. And in his publicity line, he often writes “Eagle Scout: Missoula, Montana.” As if those are the most salient facts about him.


AM: That’s true. As if it’s like his MFA program or something.


EW: But that’s what’s so cool about Lynch to me, because in his film and in his persona I never know if I should be serious or laugh.


AM: I think that’s interesting in the context of your work as well. You know, I’ve read what I call the Eric Wilson Trilogy, starting with Against Happiness, then Everybody Loves a Good Trainwreck, and Keeping It Fake.


So, one thing I was surprised to find in Polaris Ghost was the subject of grace. You write about grace pretty extensively in your other work. But fairly early on in Polaris Ghost you have a father telling his daughter, “This is grace. It’s a stroke of luck that saves you from dying.” And when I read that, I was kind of taken aback because I didn’t expect grace to come up here. After finishing that chapter, I wasn’t sure how seriously to take it—if it was a sincere form of grace or something else.

I wonder for you how grace factors into this work.

WIlliam Blake Portrait by Eric Wilson
Portrait of William Blake by Eric Wilson, oil pastel on paper


EW: Okay, good. That’s great. So, I guess I’ll start with what I would call “serious grace.” Now, really that comes out of my reading of Blake. In my book My Business Is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing, and also in my memoir The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace, I see grace in a pretty traditional way. If justice is a world of cause and effect, grace—connected to mercy—kind of breaks that up.


It connects to that great moment late in King Lear when Lear sees Cordelia. He kind of gains his senses for a second and says to her, basically, “You have much cause to hate me.” And she says, “No cause, no cause,” which just captures beautifully this idea that mercy and grace push against causality. And in a way, therefore, break the idea of temporality entirely.


AM: So it’s kind of gnostic in that sense, then, like you said before.


EW: Yes! And I would even go further and I would connect it to—well, kind of a darker version of this: If you read Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” he’s constantly using the infinitive. It’s like he won’t conjugate a verb. And Keats does this at the beginning of “To Autumn.” So, the infinitive, it’s like a verb not yet tensed, and it suggests a kind of infinity, and I feel that’s kind of what grace does. It lifts us up to infinity, to this state of pure potentiality, where you’re not yet tensed into past, present, or future.


AM: I’m wondering if the openness of the text would kind of be a form of grace itself—this kind of splitting of this Polaris figure and these fragmented identities.


EW: I think it’s a very sophisticated understanding of the book that I myself didn’t even imagine, but I’m thinking of it now.


I saw the fragmentation more as a kind of self alienated from itself, and therefore in despair. But I like to think—there are these moments of vision in the book—let me back up.


One of my favorite films is Last Days, directed by Gus Van Sant. And it’s about the last days of Kurt Cobain—loosely. It’s a film about all these 20ish-year-old people who are totally disoriented—


[At this point, a young man a few chairs over from us at the bar interjects. He introduces himself as Will]


Will: Excuse me, you guys are talking about writing. Do you mind if I just sit here and listen? I’m having a hard time hearing you from my seat over here and it sounds very interesting.


[We introduce ourselves and catch him up on the conversation, The Arrival, Polaris Ghost. One of my favorite Modest Mouse songs starts playing in the background].


EW: So, all of these alienated, despairing 20-year-olds, one of whom is the Kurt Cobain character, are totally disconnected from anything significant. But then, occasionally, you hear this weird ambient sound of chimes ringing, or trains, or children singing. No one else hears it. It’s like this other realm that no one else gets—and this movement is a soundscape symphony called The Doors of Perception.


Only at the very end, when the Kurt Cobain character is getting ready to walk into the greenhouse to commit suicide, he turns around as if he hears the chimes. It’s like this visionary world that just floats above this world of fragmentation.


So there are moments in Polaris Ghost where I discuss moments of polar discovery, and those are meant to be those moments of this world of unity and light that Polaris isn’t getting. So I like the idea that the fragmentation, like in Eliot’s The Wasteland, suggests a panorama of futility, but also there’s the possibility that the very breaking up of self opens up the possibility of a reformation of something new.


AM: Yeah, in Ben Lerner’s work he connects it to Giorgio Agamben’s idea of “the coming community,” where, like you’re saying, there’s this hovering world, almost the sublime hovering world, that’s superimposed over our own. And these glimpses where we see how they come together are both fragmented and unifying.


EW: I mean, it’s a very Christian idea. That only by having the body ripped apart can the spirit thrive. It has a long history, and a pre-Christian history—you have the descent into hell with Odysseus—that only when you go down into the darkness and become dismembered—like Odysseus, like Dionysus also, and Yeats says it too—something has to be torn and rent before it can become whole.


AM: I’m wondering too—at first in my mind this was an unrelated question, but now I’m wondering if it’s related. [I turn to Will]. This is a total spoiler alert—are you into Twin Peaks at all, Will?


Will: Is a fish—uh, YES!


EW: As a fish takes to water, you take to David Lynch?


Will: Well, the new stuff gave me too much of an existential crisis in the first three episodes for me to continue, but I plan to go back to it in about six months.


AM: That’s understandable. Well, don’t listen to this question because it’s one of the final scenes—


[Will sticks his fingers in his ears].


That last scene in the new season, the scream. I’m wondering about that moment of utter anguish, where this character has become two different identities, and there’s this scream that’s both kind of a moment of realization and unity, of things coming together, but also total disparity—and despair.


I was wondering about the scream in that moment, possibly in connection to the idea of being ripped apart, and also in the very end of your book, when the husband who’s become a boar is coming back to himself and making this animal sound—or trying to—and that incredible last line: “if anyone could have heard it, it would have been a sound that was almost human.”

Gloria Swanson Sunset Blvd by Eric Wilson
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BLVD. Eric Wilson, oil pastel on paper

EW: So, one of the reasons Lynch likes crying so much in his films and in Twin Peaks—you know the Pilot, everybody’s constantly weeping—weeping for Lynch is a bit like screaming. It’s like a pre-linguistic or an alinguistic expression of a powerful emotion. And I think one of the reasons Lynch is so skeptical of language, both in his films and in person, is that he has the sense that language is always abstraction. It always removes us from an experience. The minute you can talk about something, you’re not that something anymore.


So I think that in some ways that scream at the end has that same power. On the one hand, it’s horrifying. It’s terror. But on the other hand, there’s a sense of breakage in normal ways of making sense of the world through language. So there could be a sense of something-else-ness that comes with the scream, that can often come with the crying. I mean, it goes back in some ways to Lynch’s interest in surrealism and Dadaism, this idea that meaninglessness has a kind of power. Because if meaning is always linguistic, it’s somewhat oppressive. So meaninglessness can be liberating in some cases—screaming, crying.

I guess that’s what I’d say about that right now, but I think it does have that duplicity you’re talking about. It’s horrible, but it does suggest there’s something else beyond our normal ways of making sense of the world.


I would say that the experimental qualities of Polaris Ghost—I think it reads clearly from page to page, but overall it’s quite enigmatic in ways that I’m not sure I can explain. And I don’t really care because I was really suspicious of “meaning,” you know, theme and motif, symbol and allegory. And that’s one reason I got so interested in fairy tales—the book has these seven weird kind of fairy tales.


Fairy tales are these vehicles of very traditional meaning or morality, and I wanted to set up the expectation that “this is a fairy tale, there’s going to be some greater meaning,” and then in the end there’s nothing at all.


But there’s a difference between confusion and ambiguity. Confusion’s when you see a movie or read a work of literature and you’re like, “What the fuck is that?” And you’re ready to walk out. Whereas ambiguity, to me, suggests lots of potential meanings, but you can’t quite get to them.


AM: We’ve talked a lot about fragmentation, but when I read this book, having read some of your previous work, it feels so cohesive in certain ways—in the sense, perhaps, that this is the book that you were always coming to. This is the book that was always on the tip of your tongue before. Is that something you thought about as you were writing it?


EW: Yes. Very much so. Well you know, you’ve read my philosophical essays and what you call my trilogy, which is a very flattering thing to say. Were you at Wake when Brian Evenson read?


AM: Yes.


EW: So that was a fucking watershed moment. It really was a huge moment. So, I heard the reading, and he read this story about the two girls who both experience the absence of the parents in radically different ways. And I just thought, “Wow.” It’s like he’s going into an ordinary situation of childhood sadness, but going into it and describing it in such a way that feels like a fairy tale from 3000 years ago. And then of course he read that story about the woman fucking the mime. [Laughs]

Godzilla Eric Wilson Interview
Godzilla by Eric Wilson, oil pastel on paper

So I immediately got the book Fugue State and I read it. And it opened something in me. I was like, “Fuck. You can write fiction that way?” I mean, I know Kafka did it, but. So, I immediately wrote what became the boar story, like three days after Brian Evenson read. And then I wrote the first two stories, the one about the boy wanting to see the dead boy and the one about the boy finding the dead cat, or the dead things under his bed. It just came.


And I just thought, yes. This is what I’ve been wanting to write, and I’ve been afraid. I’ve been hiding behind ideas and theories and nonfiction. And those are fine books and all, but I really felt like something was released. I felt like I was born [Laughs] to write Polaris Ghost.


I mean, not all of it came so easily. But Hawthorne said of The Scarlet Letter, “I more and more came to see the writing of that book as a form of music.” And he said, “All I had to do was get in the right key and I could write forever.” In other words, it’s not the plot, it’s the voice. And I kind of felt that way about Polaris Ghost, with the kind of deadpan voice in the fairy tales. I felt like I could write forever, like 1000 pages in that voice. It just felt so right.


So, in some ways, I feel like Polaris Ghost is my very first book. [Laughs] My first real book.


AM: I love that idea of music. I was also interested in the voice you adopted—and kind of crafted—in these stories. There’s several voices, but the two that I’m most interested are the kind of straightforward fairy tale voice—“I am doing this, we will do this, and then we will do that”—and the other is almost like an inversion. And that comes through a lot with Ella, where you get all these introductory clauses that lead up to the final meaning of the sentence. But by the time you get there, you’ve almost lost the train of thought.


And I’m wondering, to come back to your previous point on the infinitive and the infinite, if that inversion is a play on that?


EW: Well, it wasn’t consciously, but I think in terms of these voices that makes sense. What’s appealing to me about what I’m calling the “fairy tale” world is that there’s this sentence to sentence simplicity and clarity, where I know exactly what that says and exactly what that says. And then where you get to the end—if it’s an interesting fairy tale—you’re like, “What the fuck?”


So that voice was more declarative. And I was going for a more deadpan, meaning removed, as if it’s a kind of folkloric voice. As in, I might be telling this story around a fire or something, but it’s not about my subjectivity. It’s more about me voicing the story.


Now, the Ella voice is a much more lush, lyrical voice that I wanted to suggest. Well, Emily Dickinson was really behind that: “I dwell in Possibility— / A fairer House than Prose—” And Dickinson’s idea that the poetic pushes against the prosaic. So, I wanted Ella’s voice to be lyrical and almost inscrutable.


And so, whereas the fairy tales are paratactical—“I did this, and I did that,” etc.—the Ella stories are more hypotactical—“Although she did that, he did that.” They’re more dependent on that subordination where you can lose the meaning. But it’s less about the meaning and more of a reverberation, like you only get the meanings as they kind of echo after you’re done with the sentence.


AM: Because of that effect with the language, it forced me to go back and re-read, especially at the end of certain chapters. I would get to the end and then have to go back to find where I had lost what was happening.


So, this was one of the many senses of doubling, for me as a reader, where you have both the expectation of what you’ve read and the reality of what the text says on the page.


To give you an example of that, one of the coolest moments for me was at your book release back in March, at Bookmarks. And you read one of the first pieces I had read from this book, the chapter “Oddity.” I had originally read it when you shared it on Facebook, so as you were reading in the bookstore, I was grinning like an idiot, following along with my memory of where the story was going. But by the time you had gotten to the ending, I felt like there used to be more to the story.


So, you have all these examples of women throwing jewelry—rings, necklaces—I was almost positive the earlier draft brought in Laura Palmer throwing her locket in Fire Walk With Me. Was that ever part of it?


EW: Wow. No, but now I wish it was. I think it definitely connects, but no, it was never in there.


AM: Well now the mystery is solved.


[At this point, Will brings up how the locket in Fire Walk With Me is depicted differently than it was originally in Twin Peaks, and we talk about how David Foster Wallace was one of the few who had praised the film, specifically for its redemptive representation of Laura Palmer’s subjectivity.]


AM: Well, to come back to Lynch. One of my favorite moments from The Art Life is when he describes bringing his father down into his basement, where he was keeping all these jars of bugs and just kind of grotesque experiments. He was so excited, for whatever reason, to show them to his father. And as they’re coming back up the stairs, his dad says to him, “David. Don’t ever have children.” [Laughs]


I can appreciate that moment, where your family is legitimately concerned because of these things that you’re creating. That anxiety shows up throughout Lynch’s work—probably greatest with Leland and Laura Palmer—and I wonder how you feel about that with your own work.


You’ve written a lot about your daughter in the past, and she appears in this book as well, although somewhat transmuted. So, on some level she’s your daughter, but she’s also an element of your psyche—as is the wife, as are the other characters throughout the book. And I’m not trying to conflate you with the narrators, but I wonder what it’s like to write about your daughter.


EW: Not that one should engage in biographical criticism, because we totally shouldn’t, but yeah, I guess that fear in Polaris Ghost came from a fear of losing my daughter. You know, my marriage was falling apart, and I was afraid that I would lose my daughter.


But the book is also very much about the loss of innocence, almost in a Lynchian sense, and also a desire for innocence, a desire for pure possibility separate from cause and effect. And separate, in a way, from time itself.


But there’s also this idea that the daughter is a kind of sign of innocence, if innocence is pure possibility. So to lose one’s child—there’s the pain of losing the child, but it also symbolizes a loss of something deep within the self, the sense of possibility. And without possibility, where are we? In Hell. As Dante says, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” and what is hope but possibility?

Eric Wilson Interview Arrival Magazine
Eric Wilson Portrait by Daniel Ferguson at Sixteen Over Sixth, Winston-Salem, NC

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