John Wray, award-winning author of three critically acclaimed novels—The Right Hand of Sleep (2001), Canaan’s Tongue (2005), and Lowboy (2009)—sat down to chat with me about tent living, abandon buildings, indie rock, and the ever-elusive muse that is New York City. Picador recently released Lowboy in paperback.
Joann: You’ve been to a lot of remote places in New York City—tell me about some of those…
Wray: A lot of the places that I’ve found, like the abandoned City Hall Station, later went into an article, “The Impossible Sightseeing Tour of New York,” that I wrote for A Public Space, a literary magazine based in Brooklyn. A good friend of mine, Matt Dojny, did the illustrations and each page has a picture and a description of a cool place in New York that you can’t visit. Most of those I found in the course of doing research for Lowboy.
One of the really fun things about writing Lowboy was that knew it was going to compel me to explore New York. Even though I had been living here for 15 years at that point, it forced me to go to places that I wouldn’t otherwise see. It was really fun. A lot of research for the book involved looking at a map of New York City, particularly of Manhattan, but also of Queens and the Bronx, and thinking, ‘Where have I not been yet?’ ‘Where is an interesting area that I haven’t considered?’
Joann: Where is the most under appreciated place in New York?
Wray: I love New York cemeteries; I love Green-wood Cemetery—I really adore it. Green-wood is such a gorgeous place, but people are depressed by it or it seems too morbid, I guess.
Joann: What is it about places like Roosevelt Island and Ellis Island that appeal to you?
Wray: When I was a kid I loved to explore abandoned buildings. There is something about abandoned planes that is so fascinating. I think it’s somehow related to peoples’ fascination with ghosts. Abandoned buildings have a very different charge then those buildings that are fully restored. Abandoned, empty buildings have this incredible energy.
Joann: For Lowboy, you spent time writing while riding the subway, much like the character does in the story. How important is it to be in touch with your characters’ senses in order to accurately portray their obsessions, fears, and desires?
Wray: When I’m writing I do think about the characters’ senses and what sort of sensory input they’re getting, but I think more about what sort of sensory stimulus the reader should be getting, rather than the characters. I don’t necessarily think, okay, so Lowboy is in the subway station: What is he seeing? What is he feeling? What does he smell? I mean, I’m thinking, the reader is following Lowboy into the subway station, what sort of sensory descriptions will push readers’ buttons.
Joann: While your first two novels are historical fiction, Lowboy is set in contemporary New York. What inspired you to switch gears and write about a character living in the present day?
Wray: Unfortunately if you write a historical novel, you seem to get put into a little bit of a ghetto, like if you write a novel about zombies, people are going to treat it as a genre novel and the same is true of historical fiction. My hope was always that that wouldn’t be the case. Take Cormac McCarthy, for example. Even though his books have cowboys in them, they’re not cowboy novels. I wasn’t so much interested in writing a novel with a broader appeal as much as a novel that people my age or younger might read.
Joann: Is Lowboy autobiographical at all?
Wray: It is in some ways. It is in the sense that when I was trying to make this 16-year-old as believable as possible and as far from a kind of stereotypical mentally ill person as possible. I did put in a lot of myself at 16, what I could vaguely recall of my way of looking at the world and of my kind of semi-numb emotional state at that age. Yes, I put a lot of myself into the character and there’s a lot of my mother in the character of the mother. It’s autobiographical in a lot of the details, the ways in which I put meat on the bones. Yeah, definitely.
Joann: Have you been approached to turn Lowboy into a film?
Wray: I have. A very cool guy named Jay Rabinowitz has optioned it. He’s never made a movie before, but he’s been Jim Jarmusch’s editor for 20 years. He’s edited 8 Mile, Requiem For A Dream, the Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There, Coffee and Cigarettes, and so many more. I hope it will get made; I think it will get made.
Joann: Come to think of it, didn’t Lowboy have a soundtrack? How did that come about?
Wray: For the New York Times’ Paper Cuts, I made a soundtrack of music that I listened to while I wrote Lowboy since I wrote it on the subway to a large degree and I needed to listen to music through my headphones, otherwise I’d be distracted. But I also recorded about seven songs, like 10- or 15-minute songs, with this friend of mine, to listen to while I was working, but that didn’t work out well because the songs were all too quiet. Then, for a while, the idea was to feature songs as downloads for the book so readers could listen to them while reading, but I got too busy and I kind of dropped the ball on that idea.
Joann: Were those compositions that you had written?
Wray: Basically. The songs were more or less improvised by me and a couple of my friends. They were very simple; they were songs where I was just playing the same chord the entire time. They were almost like songs that you would put on to meditate. I played guitar, and a little bit of keyboards. I played various instruments in college. I played bass guitar and drums well enough to play in a mediocre indie rock band. I played in a lot of other people’s bands, but I was always just a placeholder for someone better.
Joann: You’ve been a musician for a long time, right? You also play in a band called Marmalade.
Wray: I play a lot of music. I started playing guitar when I was in high school and I played in bands when I was a student in Oberlin College. It’s not Harvard, but it’s sort of the Harvard of indie rock. There are so many bands that came from Oberlin—Yeahs, Yeah, Yeahs, Liz Phair, Trans Am—it was hard to be there and not get caught up in that. The whole school is kind of isolated, so you have to make your own fun.
Joann: And then you came to New York to take part in New York University’s Masters Degree Writing Program?
Wray: I came to New York originally to get an MFA in poetry at NYU, but I didn’t like it and I dropped out. I always wanted to write a novel, but I didn’t have the confidence or the discipline to do it, or even the patience. The patience is the most important thing. You have to be very patient with yourself and not expect too much to happen on any given day.
Joann: While writing your first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, which was set in 1930s Austria, you were living in a tent in a Brooklyn warehouse without heat or hot water. Tell me about that experience.
Wray: I had no heat, no hot water, but I made basically made the choice to live like that because I got kicked out of my sublet that I hated anyway, so, I basically held the lease for this basement rehearsal space in Brooklyn, in DUMBO, and it had this back room…and when I’d tell people I was staying there, they would be like, ‘oh my god…” Everyone seemed to know someone there who had his or her head bashed in with a lead pipe… but DUMBO changed so fast… in about four years it was completely different…
I really didn’t want to leave New York and I felt there was no way I could stay unless I really changed my life; that is, unless I got a real job in which case I wouldn’t have been able to write the book. So, I thought, all I have to do is adjust myself to living in a tent in this nasty room. If I could take that step, then I’d be living in NY for free. I knew that I could do it because just after college, I spent some time living in a tent when I was working in Alaska. It really wasn’t much different, only I knew it was never going to rain on me—though a pipe did burst—so actually, it did end up raining on me. A lot of my manuscript got wet, so I had to hang the pages up like laundry; it was a low point. Even so, when I compare the depression of living at [my parents’ home] or of working a shitty day-job in a cubicle to the occasional depression of living in a dank basement—I’d choose the basement any day of the week.
Joann: Tell about your character Citizen, and how he became the “voice” of your Twitter feed.
Wray: Citizen was an early character in Lowboy who just didn’t fit, so I thought it would be fun to give him life after death. My publisher wanted me to get on Twitter, so I thought I would try it. Other people have tried to do a Twitter novel or a short story, but each tweet is incomprehensible without what comes before and after, so it’s better if people are on Twitter, that if they get a tweet from me, they don’t need to click on my profile and read the whole thing, they can just chew on each individual tweet. The messages may be read alone or in one continuous narrative. If Citizen is in a bar in one tweet, he’s usually still in a bar in the next one. They’re more like little jokes. I feel concerned as a writer that there are new forms of communication emerging and I don’t want to be disengaged from them. I don’t like the idea of a novel as something that’s inherently anachronistic. In the end it’s just text. Whether somebody listens to their music on mp3s or on vinyl, it’s still just music.
Joann: Can you give readers any hint about your next novel, such as where or when it will be set, or some tidbit about the main character? Will it be completely different from your last three books?
Wray: My new novel is a big more comical. It’s sort of about my Austrian family, but only in the smallest of ways, like a point of departure. It’s a little bit of a spoof. Most of them are not interesting enough to write a book about.