Never let it be said that Brooklyn author John Wray doesn't know the value of a good book. "Girls like it when they see you bring a novel out of your messenger bag," he says. And if only one book makes its way to your bag this year, Wray's heady footrace of a novel, Lowboy, deserves the look (click here to buy it on Amazon).
Before we included Lowboy in our 2009 Style and Design package, we hopped on the phone with the half-Austrian, half-American writer as he was working on his next book at an European writer's colony. He spoke to us about his nomadic childhood, his writing process and why being an author won't get you more girls. Read the Q&A below...
Interview by Damien Scott
Complex: Your past is a bit shrouded, where exactly are you from?
John Wray: It's a little complicated. My mother's Austrian, my dad is from California and I was born in Washington D.C. but I only lived there for about a year. Then I moved to sunny, glamorous Buffalo, New York. And also Austria depending on where my mother wanted to be. It was weird to grow up in a rustbelt city and spend time in this little town in Southern Austria. It gave me a split personality. But I grew up pretty much in Buffalo.
Complex: How did it give you a split personality?
John Wray: Because the two places were so different from one another and there were these very different social contexts that encourage slightly different sides of my personality. I just realized not too long ago that a lot of contradictions I see in myself, fall into two camps. The two contradicting camps would be the Austrian side and the American side. Hopefully as I get old and become a grown up, which hopefully will happen at some point, those two sides will reconcile. I would say the American side of me is more out going and down to Earth while the Austrian side of me knows about wine and cheese.
Complex: When did you start writing?
John Wray: I started writing when I was fairly young, I was in grade school. I decided I wanted to write a thriller that was going to be a spy thriller. Then I realized at some point none of the grown ups took my project seriously. And they were certainly right not to take it seriously. It was a pretty ridiculous project, but when I saw no one was paying attention I stopped completely and I didn't write for almost ten years. When I was pretty much finished with college I realized that grown-ups might take me seriously [laughs].
Complex: Where did you go to college?
John Wray: Oberlin College in Ohio. It has a good music scene. A lot of great indie rock bands came out of there like the Yeah Yeah Yeah's, Tortuous, Trans AM, and Liz Fair. When I was there I spent a lot more time playing music in bands than I did writing because I was still in that phase where I didn't think I would be taken seriously. Then I lived in a bunch of different places. I lived in Alaska for a while, I lived in Texas for a while. And then I finally moved to New York to attend a writing workshop at NYU but I didn't like it so I dropped out. I played in some bands around New York. Then I decided to go back to writing school because I had started a novel at that point, I was 25 I think, actually living in a band practice space in Dumbo, that is now the practice space of this band called Animal Collective.
Complex: Why were you living out there?
John Wray I was living there because it was rent free, this was around 1998. I didn't know what to do with this novel, I didn't know anyone who wrote fiction in New York. Then I thought, maybe if I send this novel in as an application to Columbia, I wont go to the school but at least if I get in, I will know I have a workable idea. When I sent it in to Columbia and got in, they called my bluff because I didn't have the guts to not go after all that. So I went and then I dropped out again [laughs]
Complex: Why'd you drop out again?
John Wray: I dropped out of NYU because I didn't like the program, I dropped out of Columbia because I couldn't afford it. I learned a lot in the semester and a half that I was there but it just didn't make sense to me. So I dropped out again but a teacher there took pity on me and hooked me up with her agent. So right before I left New York, because I couldn't afford it anymore, I gave the manuscript to an agent. Then I spent the next year in Santiago in Chile, a cousin of mine was living down there. You can live there on very little money, that's where I was when my book sold it all went a little faster than I expected. It's basically been down hill from there.
Complex: You said you wrote LowBoy in a more direct way to make it more accessible. I'm guessing this was done to get a wider audience?
John Wray: When I'm getting towards to end of writing a book I'm so sick of the process I start having daydreams about another book I would rather be writing. Usually I have two or three potential book ideas, this time I had some complex ideas and they would have lead to some long difficult books. Then I had other ideas of other projects I was equally interested in. My second book was very difficult to write so I wanted a book that was like other books I really enjoyed which were both ambitious in their way but also accessible. Maybe a book like "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway or "The Great Gatsby", books that were written in a straightforward style but still have style. And that still take you to some pretty strange places.
Complex: Was the process of writing this book completely different from your other books?
John Wray: It wasn't all that different except it was more focused and more enjoyable. People think sometimes that because a book is dark or deals with some pretty unpleasant issues that it's necessarily unpleasant to write, as though you the author are going through all the horrible and the frightening experiences that the characters are in your novel. To some degree that is true but a really frightening, harrowing book can be fun to write. A person like Steven King seems to have a lot of fun writing about horrifying things, so in a strange way I would say it was more fun writing this book than the other two.
Complex: The main character was based on a childhood friend of yours?
John Wray: My understanding of what it's like to develop a mental illness as a teenager is based on a couple people that I knew. But the character of Will Heller, the voice, is mostly based on me when I was that age. Things that he's afraid of and things he's worried about are the same things that I worried about, and things I hoped for and things I was excited about are also the same. He just encounters them more without the emotional suspension system that most non-mentally ill people have, everything hits them harder. When I was 16 years old I pretty much thought the world was going to end if I didn't get laid [laughs]. Low Boy's preoccupations aren't fundamentally different from most teenagers he just takes it to a level that most well adjusted kids might not.
Complex: With this book are you happy with how people are responding to it?
John Wray: Yes, I'm very happy with it. I feel any book of mine people are actually reading is a book whose reception I'm happy with. No author can ever have control over how people interpret his or her writing, and its very rare that you come across a view that really nails it or captures what you were hoping to achieve, but if the reviewer enjoyed the book they're free to interpret it however they want. I really believe strongly in not spoon-feeding the reader and to some degree, an author should let them make up their own mind on what the story means.
Complex: I saw that you have a LowBoy Twitter page.
John Wray: I'm still doing a thing on twitter that's about a character who was in an early draft of LowBoy but didn't end up in the book. Not because I didn't think he had potential, but the part he was in was just becoming its own thing. It wasn't quite enough of a thing to write a novel about so it just seemed like a fun way to explore it and not just shelve it away.
Complex: That's cool. Are you on any other social networking sites?
John Wray: When LowBoy was coming out my publicist told me, first thing you need to do is open a Facebook account and a Twitter account. He was just thinking I would do tweets like most people do, like talking about what I had for breakfast. Not saying that I'm not interested in what Miley Cryus had for breakfast, I just thought it might be interesting to do something different from that. Not only to promote your book but to hear what people have to say about your book.
Complex: They've certainly changed the game in regards to the way artists and fans communicate...
John Wray: Ten years ago with my first book, other than a couple of letters, I don't think I got too much contact with anyone who ever read my book. It use to feel like you sent it out into space for some alien race to respond to 500 years later. With LowBoy I've gotten so much feed back on Facebook or Twitter, from people who have read the book, or just coming across people tweeting on the book, it's been really cool to see. It's like this new thing to see there's some kind of evidence that people are actually reading it.
Complex: Speaking of tech, the big story in terms of books is the Amazon Kindle. What do you feel about people consuming books this way?
John Wray: To me it's no more dramatic than vinyl going to MP3. I think what's fundamental is the text. When I write a novel I'm not thinking about what the jacket of the book is going to look like or if it's going to be hard cover. I happen to really like books and will probably never own a kindle, but anyway that someone wants to read a book of mine is fine with me. As long as they read the words I put down I could care less how they get it. I personally like books as an object. I like the smell of books and the feel of paper, but none of that stuff is inherent to the text in itself, and obviously the Kindle is portable so it has that advantage.
Complex: What do you do for fun or a normal day?
John Wray: I do a lot of really nerdy shit. I'll go to a lecture at the New School or bird watching at Central Park, then on another day I will go see a band or go to a party. As far as I can tell the authors I know don't really conform to any particular type, they are all over the map. Some of them are hardcore geeks and some of them are like ridiculously hip and hanging out with the guys from Radiohead. I like to play poker and it's embarrassing, but I'm into karaoke. I'm a David Bowie specialist, and I do a pretty good Al Green. I got an intense falsetto. It's scary to see that in action. I play tennis, I like to go out and eat, I like to eat good food, and I spend entirely way too much money on that. I have been living in Brooklyn for almost ten years now. When people find out what I do they are generally surprised and I think it's because I'm such a regular and such an unpretentious guy, or I don't seem nearly smart enough to write. I can never figure out which one it is. I go to the movies a lot. The year I was writing "LowBoy" I was watching a movie almost everyday in a theater.
Complex: What was the last really good movie you last saw?
John Wray: The last really good movie I saw was... I would have to say The Hangover. It was hilarious. I tend to like stupid movies like that.
Complex: Do you ever see yourself writing a movie?
John Wray: It's funny you ask that because I think "LowBoy" is about to get optioned. I was talking to one of the people involved and he was wondering if it was something I would be interested in writing a screenplay for. I would want to write a screenplay but not for one of my books because I think I would totally mess it all up. It's totally a different kind of process, it doesn't matter how you describe things in a screenplay, it just matters what you're describing and the structure of the action, and that's all stuff I would have to learn how to do. The novelist Richard Price, I went to a dinner with him once, and he was complaining about how much of a pain in the ass it was to write the remake of Shaft, the one staring Samuel L. Jackson, and at the end of it he told me how much he was getting paid for a month or two's worth of work and I couldn't fucking believe it. So I'm definitely not saying no to writing a screenplay.
Complex: Do you find it easy to pick up girls being a well-known author?
John Wray: It depends on the girl. At first I think it works against me because they assume I'm a pathetic loser who has sixteen eight hundred-page novels at his desk, and who is a deeply neurotic absinthe drinker. When they find out my books have actually been published it depends on the girl, some of them could care less. Most girls still want you to be a fun guy to hang around with.
Complex: Have you ever seen that show "Californication?"
John Wray: I saw like one episode online once. I enjoyed it. I think maybe if you're an author and you're David Duchovny it will go that way for you. Obviously there is a certain type of girl who I'm into. I don't think it has worked against me, not for a while. I've never met girls at literally functions, usually the girls that I've met, I meet at a party or a bar or whatever. It's hard to work "I'm a published author, these are my books, they have been well received" in a flirtatious conversation.
Complex: Why should the youth of America continue to read novels?
John Wray: I think they should read novels because there are things a novel can do that no movie, video game, or a comic book can do. There are great things about movies and video games, and I'm a big fan of both, but you're short changing yourself if you don't check out all the options you have out there. Girls like it when they see you bring out a novel out of your bright messenger bag.
Complex: What authors are you excited about beside yourself?
John Wray: I'm really excited about myself, besides that I just read a really hilarious book named "Then We Came To Then End" by Joshua Farris. I'm looking forward to the new Haruki Murakami novel coming out in a couple months. I really enjoyed Colson Whitehead's novel "Sag Harbor." People act as though there's nothing to that novel or it's not weighty, but I feel like he relaxed when working into this book, it's a side of him no one has really seen too much. It's breezy in a good way. It's a thinking man's beach book.
Complex: Now that "LowBoy" is doing well, what are you gonna do next?
John Wray: Now I'm working on the big crazy mind fuck of a book that I decided I didn't feel like writing last time around. Maybe now people can handle it, maybe I can handle it. I'm trying to do something crazy next time around and see if it sticks to the wall.