portrait Interview with Richard Wiley

interviewed by J.J. Wylie

Published in Issue No. 41 ~ October, 2000

Don’t be ashamed if you’ve never heard of Richard Wiley. It’s not your fault. He has never written anything close to a bestseller; Oprah has yet to designate him the flavor-of-the-month for her television book club.

Yet, Wiley has an impressive literary vitae: After studying at the venerable Iowa Writer’s Workshop under John Irving, Wiley’s first novel, Soldiers in Hiding, won the 1987 PEN/Faulkner Award. Wiley’s subsequent novels – Fool’s Gold, Festival for Three Thousand Maidens, and Indigo – all received favorable notice in America’s flagship book periodical, the New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere. Despite this, only his most recent book remains in print – Ahmed’s Revenge, published by Random House in 1998.

Currently, Wiley is on the faculty of the department of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he teaches in the Creative Writing MFA program he founded along with Douglas Unger.

J.J. Wylie: Which do you think is harder to deal with, the uncertainty you felt before publishing anything or the frustration of having what you’ve published go out of print?

RICHARD WILEY: The second is more insidiously frustrating because you think with every publication you are making progress. The first feeling is just a rite of passage. It’s akin to having a child; it’s a great burst of happiness that your subsequent publications are only a shadow of. You are happy with each publication, but they’re nothing like your first. Before you get published, there’s some part of you that says it’s never going to happen, so, when it does happen, it’s nothing but joyous. But, however, when your books go out of print without coming back into print – or they go out of print too quickly – then it’s like dealing with some controllable form of cancer. If you think about it too much, it’ll consume you, so you don’t think about it too much, except to get pissed off every once in a while.

JW: Soldiers in Hiding won the PEN/Faulkner award for best fiction in 1987, and it was the first first novel to do so. Did it surprise you that critical acclaim didn’t translate into commercial success?

RW: It never does. The PEN/Faulkner doesn’t do that, except for David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, which was also a first novel. Somehow the PEN/Faulkner catapulted that book towards being a huge bestseller. But it’s the exception. There have been best-selling PEN/Faulkner winners, but they were from writers who were already bestsellers before winning the award – like Roth’s Operation Shylock. But unless it’s from writer who is already famous, the PEN/Faulkner will not make a novel into a bestseller. Many obscure books like mine have won it and stayed obscure.

JW: Recognizing that neither is the real reason you write, which would you rather have: the award or the sales?

RW: The sales, without question. The sales because that means more people have read your book. The award is nice, but that and fifty cents might get you a cup of coffee. I don’t mean any disrespect to the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. I love that I got that award, and it has meant the world to me. But, within the context of your question, I’d rather have the sales. I would like my books to be more widely read. Though the money that would come with more sales would be nice, it’s more important to me that more sales would mean that more people have read my book.

JW: After the publication of Soldiers in Hiding, Fool’s Gold – the least read of your novels – was published. Does that make it a kind of favorite stepchild of yours?

RW: Beside being the most lyrical and esoteric of my books, it was actually the first book I wrote, even though it was the second one published. So, it’s a favorite of mine in that way, too. I haven’t read Fool’s Gold in a long time, but it’s the most writerly, if you will, of my books. It pays more attention to language in certain ways than some of the others do. It kind of sits in a corner all by itself.

JW: Has your publishing history been a hindrance or help in placing your work?

RW: My agent is trying to find a publisher for Commodore Perry’s Minstrel Show [Wiley’s sixth and latest book] now, but, with all my financially unsuccessful books, it’s harder for a good book by a published writer to find its way into print than a good book by an unknown writer

An unknown writer has a better shot at publishing than I do because an unknown writer has a clean slate. It’s like I have a record of felony convictions, so that I have to convince publishers that I’ve learned my lesson and I won’t try to rob banks anymore. They can look up Ahmed’s Revenge and see that it has sold 4,500 books. Forty-five hundred books is dismal by Random House standards; even 45,000 is only moderately successful by those corporate standards. I am not so unhappy with 4,500 because it means that 4,500 people have read my book, but Random House sees that number and says “No more books by this guy.”

JW: As a teacher in a Creative Writing program, you have a chance to meet with many other writers who may have more or less success than you’ve had. Does that difference ever intrude on your relationships with them?

RW: Every once in a while a writer friend of mine will break out into real success, which might trigger some psychological tendency to put them into a different category than other writers, but I have never felt this towards my personal friends who have become really successful. They are the same friends they were before. So, no, although when I meet writers for the very first time who are much more successful than I am, there sometimes feels like there’s a little bit of a vertical structure in the relationship between us.

JW: Are your relationships with students ever affected by the fact that your books can’t be found on the shelves of the bookstore in the mall?

RW: I don’t know. No one’s ever mentioned it. My books are in libraries, and, of course, [Ahmed’s Revenge] is still in print. So, no, it hasn’t had much of an effect on my relationship with students. Some students think that all good books go out of print and only the bad books stay in print, which isn’t true, though it’s a nice way to think about it.

JW: Being a successful writer entails mastering two different crafts: writing and publishing. As you teach your Creative Writing students, do you ever focus on publishing?

RW: It is almost never an issue because the writing isn’t good enough for me to go to bat for it, yet. If I think the work is ready, I’ll volunteer to help get it published, but I don’t like to be asked because, even though many of my students have great potential, their work may not be ready for publication yet. I concentrate my efforts on the writing. Besides, I can’t publish a book by myself.

JW: Do you ever find yourself promulgating an aesthetic to your Creative Writing Students?

RW: I stay away from that. It’s important for a teacher of Creative Writing to try to make the student’s work its own best self, whatever its aesthetic may be. Whatever that work seems to want to be, whatever it’s yearning for, is what you need to let it become. It is not the teacher’s job to point a work towards some political or aesthetic agenda that the teacher might have. Many writing teachers do that, and it is egocentric and a disservice to the students. Sometimes I’ll condemn stuff and take an anti-aesthetic viewpoint – against, say, science fiction, for example – but I try not to do that, even if there’s not much to hold on to in the student’s work. I try to concentrate on the good parts and point out where the quality is.

JW: As a teacher of Creative Writing, how do you feel about the kind critical backlash that has occurred against workshop fiction?

RW: I’ve read some of that backlash, and I’m not sure what the term “workshop fiction” means. My experience as a teacher here, and my experience as a student of Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, has been that the stories in these workshops are as varied and interesting and unpredictable as they are in bookstores. Except, of course, that they’re better than what you’d find in the average bookstore. I don’t know what “workshop fiction” means, and I haven’t been able to understand what’s bad about it at all. Now, I don’t think that Creative Writing workshops do much good for students, particularly in turning out successful writers, but I don’t think they do them any harm, either. Once in a while, a student can learn a little something from a teacher or, often, from a fellow student. So what is the harm? The Creative Writing program does give students a clean, well-lit place to work, full of like-minded people, for a period of time. That’s the idea behind it. So, why not?

JW: You have lived in Las Vegas for 11 years now. Do you think you’ll ever write about it?

RW: Yes. I don’t know if I’ll write about it so much as I’ll set a book here. I’m just now getting around to setting a book in Tacoma, Washington, where I grew up. I’m just now setting a book in the United States for the first time, unless you count Fool’s Gold, which is set in Alaska before it became a state.

JW: Since 1986, you’ve gotten six novels written and five published…

RW: And another three or four failed attempts of which I have a hundred pages or so of something that didn’t work out. Before I started this book set in Tacoma, I spent 3 months writing 75 pages or so that did not work out.

JW: Do you hang on to those?

RW: Oh, yeah. But they’re really no good. Good writers write a lot of bad stuff. And maybe the best thing I’ve learned to do is recognize that sooner. And I’m better at rewriting now, because I recognize my own nonsense now more quickly than I used to. I don’t hold on to things now just because I can’t stand letting them go out of some dead affection for something that doesn’t work. And I have a great penchant for silliness. But it’s not like there’s a drawerful of books that somebody could dig out one day and write a dissertation on, Thank God.

JW: Maeve Binchy and Kurt Vonnegut have announced their retirements from writing. Could you see yourself ever doing that?

RW: Only if I found myself getting bad at it, where I became spent. Maybe that’s what happened to Vonnegut. I have not liked his work for a long time now. I hope that doesn’t happen to me. I hope I gain more power and skill as I get older, at least for twenty or thirty more years. I could retire from my job in the MFA program but not from writing.

JW: Is there some part of you that wishes that Oprah would reach down and point her finger at you?

RW: Sure. Who wouldn’t?