You’ve been working on Wire to Wire for about two decades. Do you remember where it started? And how has it evolved over the years?
I’ve written about trains – freights – as long as I’ve been writing fiction. The first finished draft was 700 pages of train stuff without much plot. I was following the advice of my first teacher, Jack Cady, who told me to take a couple reams of paper and fill them up, ruin them. Make mistakes – because if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking risks, and no one will want to read what you write.
Also, in the earliest drafts, nothing was in chronological order. I thought it would be cool if the novel worked the way real memory worked. You don’t have to remember what happened when you were 20 before you can remember what happened the following year. We all have random access memory. So the narrative was like that too. I thought the reader would enjoy putting everything back in order and making sense of things. In fact it drove readers crazy, or drove them away. No one understood what the hell was happening. So every draft got more chronological.
About halfway through the process, I realized it needed a stronger storyline, a real plot. But I had no idea how plot worked, or how to incorporate one. Those rewrites were hard. It was like trying to put plumbing and wiring into a house you’ve already built, when you have no plumbing or wiring skills. It took forever.
Eventually, the train scenes became secondary to other things, like Slater’s attempt at connection, and the power of sex and money.
I’ve seen pictures of you from the '70s—longhaired, draped in denim, and riding freight cars. How much of the novel is autobiographical?
I don’t view it as autobiographical. But it’s true that most of the freight scenes spring from real experiences. After high school and college, I rode freights all over the west with a friend. Riding freights was our way of being loose in the world, of testing ourselves. It wasn’t about the hobo culture, it was much more about being young and on the road.
I had some of the skills I ascribe to Slater in the book – I was fast and had great balance. I could jump from one moving train to another, like Slater does in the book. So those parts of the writing are at based on real life.
Most of the houses and bars are based on somewhere I’ve been. The Addition outside Tucson is real. I decided it should have a name, so I called it The Addition, inspired by the Gin Den in Richard Ford’s A Piece of My Heart. Hidden Mist is real, though again, it’s not called Hidden Mist. It just felt more real to ground the invented characters in real places.
Though pieces of the book are set in Arizona and New York, the heart of the book is, without a doubt, Northern Michigan. What is it about that particular area that interests you?
My father grew up in a very small town in southern Michigan. When he was in high school, a family friend arranged for him to spend the summers as a handyman at a girl’s camp in Northern Michigan. I imagine that it seemed like another world to him. It did to me, when I was growing up. We went there every year. Its spell is on me. If I didn’t love Oregon so much, that’s where I’d live.
People think of Michigan as industrial, part of the rust belt, but Northern Michigan is full of lakes and forests. In some ways, it functions like the forest does in a lot of Shakespeare’s plays—a place away from court where you can come to terms with things.
In the book, I’ve made Northern Michigan into a refuge for people who can’t deal with the real world. And there are people like that up there. But of course there are plenty of perfectly normal people, too. I just thought it would be interesting to create a landscape where, as Dylan would say, losers, cheaters, and six-time users all congregate. That’s why I created a fictional town, instead of using a real town. I’ve essentially taken the towns of Frankfort and Elberta, Michigan, and turned them into Wolverine, despite the fact that there’s a real town called Wolverine also in Northern Michigan. But I didn’t know that at the time, and then I got hooked on the name and couldn’t change it.
There’s a great framing device in Wire to Wire—Slater [the main character] sits in a video suite with screens that seem to be haunted by his past. Can you talk to me a little bit about the structure, and how you came to it?
The idea of seeing visions play out on a screen came from buying a Kaypro IV when personal computers were new. It had a green nine-inch screen, and it showed nothing but chunky, digital letters. It didn’t even display fonts. The cursor would blink at me, waiting for me write something. I kept imagining how great it would be if it would show me pictures.
I’ve always been attracted to frame stories. The movie version of Dr. Zhivago is probably the first one that got to me, and then of course, Heart of Darkness. I like how it lets you zoom in and out of things. In Wire to Wire, I was particularly taken with the idea of time as something you could rewind or freeze or fast forward. We think one day follows another, but what if they don’t? That’s partly why the early drafts presented so much of the action out of chronological order.
But the frame story also created challenges. How real are the visions supposed to be, and how should the narrative flow back and forth from Michigan to New York? Those were issues at every stage of writing the book. It was something you and I talked about a lot during editing, which was immensely helpful. Thanks to you and other smart people at Tin House, I feel like we got it right, at least in my reading of it.
What authors have influenced you over the years?
In high school, I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I lived in Michigan, had never been to Oregon, and I wasn’t much of a reader at that point. So Kesey turned me on, not to LSD, but to fiction.
If Kesey made me want to read, it was Robert Stone who made want to write. I read Dog Soldiers and that changed everything for me. Early on, I had a weeklong workshop with Stone in Pt. Townsend, which was amazing and gave me confidence. And there’s a section in Hall of Mirrors, where Rheinhardt remembers his lost musical ability and thinks about how perishable that kind of talent is if you don’t wrangle it into something real. That passage alone prevented me from quitting about a million times.
Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright also influenced me, along with all of his subsequent books. I’ve always been drawn to slightly louder, incantatory styles. I also read a lot of Jim Harrison, of course, though he’s more of an inspiration than an influence. Same with Richard Ford.
There’s an undercurrent of '70s rock & roll in the book—and I know how important music is to you. Did the music throughout the book accompany the writing of it? Are there particular songs or artists that you associate with your characters?
Music was very important to me as I tried to understand the story. Certain lyrics helped define things for me. For example, Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” and the description of the night playing tricks when you’re trying to forget someone. That’s clearly Slater’s song. The way Steve Earle’s “Here I Am” owns up to a stubborn, uncompromising way of living that isn’t always fun to be around—that took me to Harp.
The Doors line about learning to forget from “Soul Kitchen” also got to me. Slater hasn’t learned how to forget and Lane needs glue to get there. There are two Joni Mitchell songs that were huge influences: the first verse of “Come In From the Cold,” where she writes about her circuitry exploding from just a single touch, and the verse in “Coyote” about how close we can get to each other and still feel alone. Of course, that’s one Robert Stone’s themes too—connection and disconnection all mixed together.
And then there’s Seger. I had written so much about Bob Seger in other forums that I purposely left him out of the initial drafts. Only when I felt comfortable that the manuscript had its own weight could I go back and incorporate a few Seger references. I’m glad I did. Writing about Michigan and not mentioning Seger would be like leaving out the Great Lakes. It wouldn’t be true.