An Interview with Daniel Wallace

by Ed Neely

Daniel Wallace was the featured speaker at the 6th Annual Spring for Literacy Luncheon at the Governors Club clubhouse on April 6. He is the author of five novels, including “Big Fish” (1998), “Ray in Reverse” (2000), “The Watermelon King” (2003), “Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician” (2007), and most recently “The Kings and Queens of Roam” (2013). His children’s book, published in 2014, and for which he did both the words and the pictures, is called “The Cat’s Pajamas.”

In 2003 “Big Fish” was adapted and released as a major movie. In 2013 the book and the movie were further adapted for a Broadway musical. His novels have been translated into over two dozen languages.

Daniel Wallace is the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his alma mater, where he directs the Creative Writing Program. His son is a rising senior at UNC-W, and his daughter is an artist in Baltimore. He lives in Chapel Hill with his wife, Laura Kellison Wallace.

Daniel Wallace and I met at Market Street Coffeehouse to talk about literacy and writing.

What are your thoughts on Chatham Literacy and the work they do?

I used to be the Assistant Director of Orange Literacy, their sister organization, so I am very familiar with the services and mission of Chatham Literacy. Reading, writing, being a citizen, our history as human beings, as cultural people in the world, has always been based on language. It started out oral, of course, but as soon as we started writing things down, that was the power. That’s where all the power was. And even more so today, that is where the power is. If you can’t read, you are powerless in so many ways in this society. It’s the key, and you are not going to become the person you were meant to be without that skill.

There are a lot of Latino people in Chatham County who need these services, and I think about what an uphill battle it must be to succeed in their position, not being fluent in English, perhaps not being able to read or write.

It would be so hard. Especially if you’re not even literate in your native language. Then you try to become literate in English, it’s unbelievably difficult. And while you are right about the Latino population, it’s a dirty secret, too, that there are a lot more people who were born here, than you might realize, who can’t read. People who’ve learned to live a life without that, and use other skills which we don’t have. Memorization, for example. Cab drivers who can’t read, who memorize the map of the town.

Too many people drop out, or have been passed through the grades without getting a real education. Some people even graduate, who have a high school degree, but can’t read. It’s seems unbelievable, but it happens.

There are a lot of counties within our county. A lot of strata of people who live here. The one we know most about–because it’s the one everyone wants to talk about, to write about–the fact that so many artists are here, so many writers are here, and we have the University here. That’s just one part of society. There are places we never go, people we never see.

There are pockets everywhere. And most people don’t even know they are there.

It’s not sexy, for sure. People don’t want to talk about it, these endemic problems. Literacy can help assuage. You can’t underestimate the bravery it takes for adults to admit and understand and submit themselves to this process of learning to read. If you don’t develop that skill when you are young, your brain is not used to thinking that way, and it is struggle. It is a real struggle. That’s why students come and then leave, because it is very slow going. You don’t see success immediately. So the work Chatham Literacy does in incredibly difficult, but incredibly important.

Let’s talk about writing. John Irving said something to the effect that if someone wants to write, but can do anything else, they probably will do something else. Because it so difficult.

That is the case for everybody. I encourage my students to do anything other than become a writer, if they can. If they can be happy doing something else, if they can be happy running a coffee shop, if they can be happy in corporate law, if they can be happy doing anything else, then they should do that. Because writing is hard. And it doesn’t get any easier. It’s usually not even a real career. You’ll always have to be doing something in addition to that.

The thing is, even if you could make a lot of money, I don’t know how much of a goal that really is, to just sit there and write, to be a twenty-four seven writer. Even if somebody inherited five million dollars, had a few years where they could just write, even that’s not a life that will necessarily bring you a lot of satisfaction and joy, unless you really enjoy the moment of writing, the minute-to-minute experience of writing. Because no matter what else happens in your life as a writer, how many books you get published, how many tours you go on, ninety percent of your writing time is spent alone, in your office. So if you don’t like that, if it doesn’t turn you on in some way, then you shouldn’t do it.

Right, unless you’re James Patterson, and you can hire other people to sit by themselves twenty-four seven.

Yeah, an army.

I can’t remember what author wrote this, but he said he works so hard to find time to write, then squanders so much of it.

Writing is like exercise. Even if you can do fifteen minutes a day that’s better than nothing. Once you do that, you’ll naturally become enamored of it. You’ll write thirty minutes, then maybe forty-five. But even if you can do just a little bit every day, it keeps it going. Even if I have a really busy day, and don’t have any serious time to write, I’ll always open the document I’m working on and I’ll look at it, and I might change a “the” to an “a,” then change it back. Then I can say I’ve done something. I wrote today.

Do you find it hard to find time to write, now that you are teaching.

I don’t. There’s always time to write. The trick is you have to not do something else that you might want to do. That’s always the problem with beginning writers, they have a life where they have ten things they want to get done that day. They put writing on the list, and it’s number eleven. They’ll never get to it. You have to move “cleaning the house.” You have to move that down on the list. There are things that have to go in order to write. If I’m serious about wanting to write, I can always find the time. Get up early, stay up late, not watch television. I don’t have to hang out with my wife on this particular day. It’s choices. It’s all up to you.

That’s true. When it gets right down to it, if you are an aspiring writer, nobody but you cares if you write.

Right, nobody in the world does. Almost every writer is in that place. Unless you’re an industry, like Stephen King, where a lot of lives are dependent on his writing.

And fans clamoring for his next book.

And television, movies. Really, he is an industry. People would suffer were he not to write. But most people, they’re not going to miss the novel you never wrote. It’s only you. You’re the only person who cares.

I read that you wrote a few books before Big Fish, your first published book. How did you keep that momentum going for so long, book after book, without getting published?

I don’t even know, really. It doesn’t make any sense. And I wouldn’t encourage anybody to do it. I certainly wouldn’t encourage my son to do it, if he decided to become a writer. Because it was fourteen years of writing books that nobody wanted to publish. I think each one was better than the last, but not good enough. Bad in different ways. I was learning how to do it.

I realized that writing, if I could make it work, was a perfect job for me. I like people, I’m not an offensive person, but I get exhausted if I have to spend all day in a traditional work environment, like an office environment. I like to be by myself. I like to create things on my own, that I can put my name on, and say I did this. So writing is a lifestyle choice in a way. I do enjoy having written, I feel good having done that, but I also I like being by myself, surrounded by things that are mine. My office. All of my stuff. Enjoying doing what I’m doing.

So even if those early books did not succeed in the wider world, I was doing exactly the same thing then as I’m doing now. There’s a better chance my stuff will be published, but there is no difference, doing then as I am doing now. But I enjoy it now as much as I did then.

Did you appreciate that back then, even though you weren’t being published, did you appreciate what you were writing?

I thought it was good. Later I would often see it wasn’t. But I never consciously wrote stuff that I knew was bad. I was trying to be a good writer, and when I wrote it I thought this is pretty good. But that’s one of the great things about writing, is that you can go back after some time and look at it. You can see whether it is good or not. In many cases–the next day or the next week–I would go back and look at it and say this is actually not good.

Did you get feedback from others while writing those first books?

I did a little writer group around here. But most of it I did on my own. I read a lot of how-to books. I didn’t go to graduate school. I didn’t graduate from college until recently.

Did you get much out of the how-to books?

Yes. I thought there was something in each of those that was helpful. Certainly most of it wasn’t useful. It just didn’t speak to me. But I got something of value out of almost every book. Sometimes it was just a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter which would really strike me as important and help me, much more, probably, than the writer of the book ever intended it to. I’m sure you’ve had teachers or people in your life who say pretty much exactly the same thing that others have said, but somehow the way they said it stuck with you. Parents go through that all the time with their kids. The kids will be moved by a teacher or friend who says something, and the parent says, “I’ve been telling you that for years.”

So I treated it like a job. I didn’t know how to do it, so I had to read all of the how-to books.

Can someone be taught to be a writer?

There is a lot you can learn about it. There are a lot of things you do as a writer you do without thinking, things you have to be taught not to do. For instance, using adverbs a lot. It just generally doesn’t work.

Are you dead set against adverbs?

In my classes, I am. There are definitely good uses for adverbs, but in the beginning, it’s like juggling with fire. Let’s just stay away from them for now.

Do you feel the same way about exclamation points?

You get three for the semester.

Does the teaching give you a good balance? Does it provide an opportunity to be more social and get out with people, then time to write.

Yes, and being able to teach these younger people is great. Because you learn so much about the world, what’s happening now, how people are thinking. So often what happens, as we get older, our kids are gone and our lives revolve around people our own age. And there’s this whole other world going on we don’t know about. And the kid’s these days are great. A lot of interesting things are happening, and I get an opportunity to take part as a teacher.

I can see that. In fact, my daughters used to be my source for that, but they are young adults now, and they’ve lost touch with some of the new music and celebrities and things like that.

Exactly. When I really knew I was losing it, I would look at the cover of People magazine and have no idea who that was. Like a scandal with Miranda and Jim and I have no idea who those people are.

I’m kind of okay with being out of touch with most of it. Especially with what they call pop music today.

True, but there are so many types of contemporary music right now. All kinds, from different takes on Big Band, pop, bluegrass, country.

I recently read The Cat’s Pajamas. It’s considered a children’s book. Is that how you see it?

It’s a children’s book, but all ages seem to enjoy it.

I didn’t realize you were an illustrator and did that to make money while you were writing.

Yeah, I did. When I was starting out, my first wife and I started this illustration business. We were selling refrigerator magnets, greeting cards, tee shirts and stuff like that.

So you were producing them yourself?

We produced the magnets. The greeting cards were produced by another company. We did some tee shirts, but most were done by another company. But we did the magnets, and lapel pins. We did everything.

Did you contract out the cards?

We just did the illustrations for another company. I think they’re still in business. They’re called Recycled Greetings. The way their business model was set up is that anybody can send in ideas for cards. If they like one, they’ll ask you to do an extra drawing, and then they’ll produce the card and you get 5% of what they sell. So you don’t have to do anything but draw the picture and they do everything else. I would get twenty ideas, send them in, and they might take two of them. It was good money if it sold.

How did you get into that?

I was with my first wife, and neither of us liked to work in real jobs. I was learning how to write. We had two kids at the time, and a third later. So we wanted to be at home. She was a waitress at the time, and I was working some at Orange Literacy and a book store. I just started drawing cartoons for the kids when they came down for breakfast, and they were so grumpy in the morning. I drew these funny cartoons. It was probably my first wife’s idea. She said, “You know, we could put these cartoons on things and try to sell them.” So that’s what we started doing.

Did you always draw?

No, I never drew. Not even as a child. It was all new. I started when I was 32.

Do you do any drawing as part of your writing process?

No, not really. I do maps. I do character maps and plot maps. But this next book I’m working on, it’s going to be a novel, but it’s also going to be very dependent on the illustrations. Some of the characters will be developed from the pictures that I draw of them. So it’s the opposite. I’m going to create a picture, then write stories based on the idea that the picture gives me.

Can you disassociate those two things? Won’t you end up, even sub-consciously, drawing a picture about what you want to write about?

I draw a lot of pictures, and some pictures are inspiring. I can see a character in the picture, whether happy, sad, secretive, malicious. I can see them in different kinds of jobs they might have had, the relationships, just in the drawing. So then I’ll write a story about them.

Interesting approach. And you’ll end up with an illustrated book for adults. I loved those classic books with illustrations, like Dickens and all that.

I know. I miss those.

Do you start a novel to see where it goes, or do you need to have a plan before you get started?

It’s interesting. The truth is both, in that when I start a book I’ll have an idea of what I think it’s going to be. So I’m not just writing out to the darkness. The book I’m writing now, I have this vague idea what the structure’s going to be like, what’s going to happen, what the book’s going to be about. But it never works out that way. And that’s fine. As I’m writing, I’ll discover really what it’s about. Because until you get the words down, you have no idea what it’s going to be. And discovering that is really the joy.

What’s the next book we’ll see?

My next book, Extraordinary Adventures, which is about the most ordinary person in the world, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in 2017.

I look forward to it. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

To hear Daniel Wallace’s talk, enjoy fantastic food, and support adult literacy education, order tickets today.

An Interview with Daniel Wallace
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