John Wray’s Unfinished Work
John Wray could be the future of American fiction, unless he gets sidetracked by another hobby first. Wray has written three books including the critically acclaimed The Right Hand of Sleep. He was named one of the best young American writers by Granta and recently ranked among Esquire‘s Best and Brightest. His most recent book is Lowboy, about a schizophrenic teenager who has escaped into the New York City subway system. The book earned Wray a lot of attention not just because of the quality of the prose, but also due to Wray’s unique writing method: he penned the entire novel while riding on the subway.
Wray spoke with us about his first attempts at writing, why he abandoned fiction for folk music and his belief that aspiring writers should play more video games.
Opening Lines: John, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. From what I’ve read, it seems you had a bit of a love/hate relationship with writing growing up. When did you first get interested in writing?
Wray: Well it’s funny. I’m sort of a combination of child prodigy and the person who didn’t know what they wanted to be until they were 30.
I grew up in a household where pretty much everyone was a voracious reader. I actually began writing fairly young. I would write little short stories and poems and would enter them in public school competitions, and sometimes they would get published. There was this publication that came out once a year called Best of Buffalo featuring kids from grades 5-12. I got a couple things into that and began to really think of myself as a budding genius, when I was in like 7th grade. And I decided the time had come for me to write a thriller.
Opening Lines: Really, a thriller? What was it about?
Wray: I had this great idea for this thriller which I thought was very original. This rich old man in this small town gets murdered, and it turns out that everyone hates him so anyone could potentially be the murderer. So I started writing this, I think I was in 7th grade, and I remember the first line of this novel (I knew from the very beginning it was going to be a novel, it wasn’t going to be a short story.) The first line of the novel was: “Old man Withers was without a doubt the most ornery old fart in the village.”
Opening Lines: Brilliant. How did the rest of it turn out? Did you show your work to anyone or get any feedback on it?
Wray: Once I had written a page, I very proudly showed this to my parents. They looked at it and they said, “It’s very promising John, and it’s really great that you’re doing this, but are you sure though that you want to use the word ‘fart’ in the first sentence?”
Opening Lines: That doesn’t sound very encouraging.
Wray: That was a real sort of turning point for me. The scales fell from my eyes and I realized that I was 11 years old and no one was going to take me seriously, no one was going to take my thriller seriously. It was really traumatic and I stopped writing all together then, and didn’t write again until I was in college because suddenly I realized what it meant to be patronized to. Even though my parents meant well of course. I try not to use the word fart anymore in the first line of anything.
I find that writing in general has gotten easier, but writing well has gotten harder somehow, maybe because it’s more automatic now than it used to be.
Opening Lines: During your hiatus from writing, did you take up any other creative pursuits?
John Wray: I was a real dabbler as a kid. I did a lot of drawing and for a while I thought I wanted to be a comics guy. When I was in junior high school, I founded this comic company called Vortex comics. All that really meant was Xeroxing these pretty amateurish superhero cartoons that my friend and I did. We had a superhero duo called Chaos 2. It was pretty bad, but we actually tried to sell them around school for 25 cents each.
I also tried to do claymation for a while. I made a claymation movie in my basement that had a gray martian in it who for some reason lived in the middle ages. I tried to do a lot of stuff. You name the branch of the arts, I’ve tried to make a go of it.
Opening Lines: I’ve heard that you also spent time performing in bands and even following around musicians like folk rocker Daniel Johnston.
John Wray: Yep, I’ve done all the dumb Indie rock stuff. I was pretty sure even than that I wasn’t good at it. I mean I was fairly good at it, but only in an imitative way. In most of the bands I was in, I wrote all of the music and was sort of the front person, but I always knew at every instant that I was just trying to be like some other musician that was cool.
Opening Lines: So what finally led you to return to writing in your college years after spending most of your adolescence focusing on other things?
John Wray: Well the longer I spent playing music, the clearer it became to me that I felt purely imitative when I was playing music, even though I picked some pretty good bands to rip off. Still, I never felt as tough I was contributing anything that hadn’t already happened. And I never had that particular feeling when writing.
Somehow writing always just felt more natural to me, whereas playing music was a bit more of living out some kind of teenage fantasy. Not that I didn’t have teenage fantasies about being a writer, but the writing life is just not that glamorous. If you’re only doing it to live out some kind of fantasy, you’ll move on pretty quick. I do think if we had had more success than we did [performing music], that would have delayed things for me in terms of getting my writing going again.
Opening Lines: How has life as a writer changed for you over the years?
John Wray: I have more of a sense of belonging now than I did when I first started out as a writer. I feel like less of an impostor. I’ve kind of gotten used to the idea of myself as someone who writes for a living, whereas in the beginning I kind of felt self-conscious and almost bashful about it.
When I started out, no one had ever heard of me, almost no one had read my books. Now it seems real to me that there are people who read my books and enjoy them. In part the Internet has helped with this. Ten years ago, your books were published and they were just sent out into the void, and maybe if you gave a reading, you might meet somebody. Now, you can really get a clear sense of your readership.
I realized that I was 11 years old and no one was going to take me seriously, no one was going to take my thriller seriously. It was really traumatic and I stopped writing all together then, and didn’t write again until I was in college.
Opening Lines: Do you find the actual writing process to be easier or harder now than when you first started out?
John Wray: I find that writing in general has gotten easier, but writing well has gotten harder somehow, maybe because it’s more automatic now than it used to be.
Opening Lines: So do you see yourself growing old and gray as a writer, or do you still have the urge to jump ship and pursue another art form?
John Wray: Well, about a year ago I wrote a screenplay for a short film that I keep sort of making preliminary plans to actually make. But then I kind of say, “What am I doing? That’s stupid.” But I definitely still have the urge to dabble. I can’t see a band that I like or a movie that affects me without kind of fantasizing about doing something responding to that. Yet I really think that the most motivating thing in writing is to encounter something that someone else has done that really impresses you. I always feel like then I go and sit down and work, and on some level it’s kind of a reply to that something that I’ve seen or read.
Opening Lines: Finally, what advice do you have for young aspiring writers out there?
John Wray: I would say read as much as you can. That’s the only way you can absorb the skill set that you need, and also find out about the variety of paths that are open to you.
I would also bear in mind that culture is always changing; it’s never static. We’re in a very transitional phase right now. There will always be work and an outlet for someone who wants to write fiction, but there are also forms of media and art forms that are developing in a very exciting way right now that will be much farther along by the time a 12-year old kid gets out of college. Like video games, for example, where there are games that are so narrative that they really do approach art films. I’m sure that’s just going to continue to develop.
The great thing about writing, maybe along with drawing or painting, is that all the other art forms need it to exist. Film, television, theater, opera, pop songs and video games, they all need writing. It is the fundamental art.