In Wilderness, there is a certain poetic elegance to the prose. Is this a conscious decision? Do you ever think poetically about the words on the page?
I think this is a question of style and not something you can be overly conscious of without it coming off sounding false on the page. Or overly-composed to the point the prose becomes purple. How something as ephemeral as style bubbles-up, develops, gets codified and “perfected” is anyone’s guess. All I know is that I know when a piece—a section, a paragraph, a sentence—gets to the point where it sounds right in my head. And, even then, it’s tricky because what might sound all right in my head might sound dreadful when read out loud—and that’s an enormously important part of whatever my process might be: making sure the words sound good when spoken.
What is your research process like? Because, for example, to approach an extensive project such as Wilderness, you needed to command certain insight on the Civil War.
Before starting on Wilderness I had no real, working knowledge of the American Civil War or the era. I had a public-school knowledge of the conflict. So, I had to start from scratch and, luckily enough, the right book landed in my lap at the right time in my life. James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. It’s an elegant, comprehensive book and I wasn’t far into it before I realized the short story about an old man and dog I was struggling with writing could be something far larger. And that one-volume history led to other, closer histories of battles and armies, of governments and economies. It led to poring over Mathew Brady photographs and studying maps and soldier’s diaries and letters home. I read Civil War histories exclusively for a long time and picked away at the lengthening manuscript as I went, but it wasn’t until I’d actually made the trip back east (from my Northwest perspective) and walked the battlefields—tasted the air, so to speak—and incorporated that direct experience into the narrative that I thought I might be able to get some of it right.
Your prose is also psychological; is that, too, an intended facet of your work?
Only insofar as it relates to character. Much of how I work, besides trying to get historical detail right without overwhelming the narrative, is a process of trying to get to know, as intimately as possible, the characters I’m writing about. Because it always starts with character. Often, and this was certainly the case with Wilderness, I know the ending of a thing before I know anything else. I know the feeling I want my characters to have at the end of the book—the feeling I, as a writer, want to have when I reach it—and everything else is in service to explaining how the characters got there, why they feel the way they do and, to do that, I have to climb into their skins and walk around a while. For me, this is a slow process—like a paleontologist sweeping dirt off bones with a little brush. Little by little, the bones of the characters are revealed, connections are made, certain leitmotifs are suggested. It takes a lot of rewriting and a lot of trust in the subconscious to let this stuff out onto the page then get it shaped into something like a story.
As a historical novelist, do you ever find it difficult to distinguish, or maneuver between, historical fact and narrative? In other words, to keep your work creatively grounded.
When I began Wilderness, I was enormously concerned with rooting things in the bedrock of historical fact. I spent many hours obsessing over the placement of a graveyard and an apostrophe (the presence—or not—of a Revolutionary War cemetery along Lee’s march into the Wilderness and whether it was Saunder’s Field, Saunders’ Field, or Saunders Field). But, somewhere along the line, the narrative itself seemed to resist the rigorous imposition of this sort of historical minutia. The characters wanted to get on with things without worrying overmuch how many buttons Sherman Grant’s procured uniform sported. So, once I was able to shuck this mental baggage, the particulars of the thing became secondary to the whys and wherefores of how my characters were relating to it.
In your opinion, can central characters embark on an odyssey, a literary journey, and not obtain a certain gratification at the end?
Well, sure, but how interesting would that be for the reader? Or for the writer, for that matter? For the writer, if you’re going to spend years of your life writing about certain characters, you’d like to like them; you’d like to see them grow and change within the bounds of the narrative and when you finally leave them—probably forever—you’d like to leave them, if not better than when you began them, then at least more complete. I suppose the argument against this is that life goes on and on—that any gratification is at best ephemeral and finite—and that all endings save death are shams. But that sort of cynicism, as seductively dark as it is, is too easy and the art that lasts, that endures, holds up mirrors to the idea that while life does go on, certain other things do not and that fact makes them all the more precious, enlightening or hideous.
When considering the introduction/first chapters of your novel(s), how do you ultimately go about discovering the character(s) or the arc enough to get it on the page? Or, in other words, how do you get that initial “clear your throat” moment of the prose out of the way?
Those tentative, first movements are always difficult. In a prior question, I said I always knew the ending before anything else and, while true, I have to admit the beginning comes fast on its heels. With Wilderness, I always carried the image of an old man sitting by a fire. He always had a dog (even before he had a name) and he was always somehow broken. Knowing this, and knowing how things ended for him, writing Wilderness then became a process of trying figure out what took him from that first place to that last. That being said, I was pretty quickly dissatisfied with how abrupt that beginning felt and found myself, one morning, writing a scene about an old, blind woman with some connection to Abel Truman. At that stage, what that connection was I had no idea so needed the rest of the novel to explain it. Once I had Jane, though, the byways of Abel’s story came pretty quickly.
In Wilderness, there is a lot of cross-cutting or parallel storytelling, where Abel’s life is told circa 1865 and 1899. Do you find this method difficult to utilize? To keep readers invested in the now?
The structure of Wilderness came after a long, painful process of trial-and-error. For the longest time, I had all Abel’s wartime experiences—the marching and the battle and everything that came afterward—set squarely in the middle of the novel bookended by the 1899 sections. It didn’t sit well with me and it really took a while to find that cross-cutting Abel’s current story with his past markedly heightened the tensions of both. I’m sure there was some sort of a-ha! moment when it all finally clicked and came together for me but I’m damned if I can remember it now.
I think that one of the strengths of your writing in Wilderness is the inclusion of cogent, sturdy supporting characters—Abel’s war buddies, the runaways Hypatia and Grant, the Makers, and the antagonists Willis and the Haida. How do you go about striking a balance between bolstering your central character and breathing life into supporting ones?
I didn’t read a lot of American Civil War fiction before starting Wilderness but one novel I did discover was Shelby Foote’s Shiloh. In this novel, Foote employs multiple narrators all describing certain aspects of the Battle of Shiloh from whatever their perspectives are at the moment. This allows Foote to comment on the disparate points of his narrative and his characters themselves from a variety of viewpoints much like the parable of the blind men all describing an elephant in a different way by the feel of its separate parts. In Wilderness, I needed the supporting cast to give the reader a look at Abel and his world from new and varied points of view; I needed their input, so to speak, to help give weight and dimension to Abel himself and balancing all that out was a real job of work. Suffice to say, there are long, LONG sections cut from the final draft that did little or nothing to help advance Abel’s story but that were, rather, more a case of the author showing off all the cool research he’d done at the expense of forward narrative movement.
At certain points in Wilderness, there are perspective shifts. The narration might go from Abel to David Abernathy to Hypatia or one of the Makers. Do you think P.O.V. ranks atop, or nearly atop, the different elements of craft?
Having had zero proper, formal education in the writing craft this is the sort of question that makes me break out in hives. Because I’m really not sure how to answer it to anyone’s satisfaction, let alone my own. I wrote a short essay for Glimmer Train once about how much of my writing process comes directly from my gut; that is, I know what I know about what the story needs, about the way it wants to be told, but I have no idea why I know it. I read a lot—A LOT—and I read pretty closely, trying to figure out how an author I admire goes about doing the thing I admire them for, and reading like this, year after year, I think you can’t help but develop a mindful instinct of how stories are told. I think you expand your narrative toolbox with all kinds of things to get the job done and POV is always right on top of all the other stuff because I use it so often. Shifts in POV—if you can figure a way to do it elegantly—allows for all kinds of wonderful insights into whatever your central character is doing and can reveal their character in such unexpected ways that rewriting becomes the second most-used tool in the box.
In Wilderness, readers go from a Civil War battlefield, to the western frontier, and into the Olympic Mountains. How crucial is setting to you? How much effort to you put into enlivening your settings? Is that where the poetic touches take form?
When I got the first image of Abel—an old man with a dog—he wasn’t facing the ocean; he was off in the woods someplace. At the time, I was doing a lot of hiking around Washington State—mainly through the wilderness surrounding Mount Rainier—but, at some point, I found the north coast out past Lake Ozette. The moment I came out of the woods and saw that landscape—the sea stacks and hogsback islands, the black beaches—I knew exactly where Abel’s story would begin. And, again, when I visited Saunders’ Field on the Wilderness Battlefield itself, I knew exactly what form my characters’ experience would take in that place. So, for me, setting—the physical landscapes my characters move through—is as important as the characters themselves and it’s enormously rewarding for me, on a personal level, to feel as though I might have done some small justice in the descriptions thereof. If people feel its poetic, all the better but, really, a writer ought to be able to take a garbage heap and make poetry from it. Because that’s the point of doing this in the first place.
What can we expect from your upcoming novel, American Marchlands?
With American Marchlands, I initially set out to write the story of an ordinary marriage out on the American frontier before the Mexican-American War. I wanted to write a romance. I got exactly one paragraph into it before the whole thing was scrapped and Tom Hawkins roared onto the page along with his best friend, Pigsmeat Spence. Drifters and killers, the novel revolves around their finally finding purpose to their lives in helping an emancipated slave, Flora, to fulfill an impossible quest. It’s a bit starker than Wilderness in that whatever redemption any of my characters find is bittersweet at best. And, as much as there is deep history in the regions of the Southwest where the novel takes place, there is also much unwritten which made it feel as though I had more of a free hand to drill down into character without worrying overmuch about buttons, graveyards, and apostrophes.
Lance Weller has published short fiction in several literary journals. He won Glimmer Train Stories Short Story Award for New Writers and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His first novel, Wilderness, was long-listed for the Prix Medici in France and short-listed for the Washington State Book Award. He lives in Gig Harbor, Washington with his wife and several dogs.