Gary D. Wilson on ‘Getting Right’
Gary Wilson has influenced the writing world through his time teaching fiction and short story writing at both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago. His work has been recommended for a Pushcart Prize and he was a finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the Drue Heinz Literary Prize. He talks to us about his latest novel, Getting Right.
How did the story of Getting Right develop?
I had gone to the hospital to visit my sister who was recovering from exploratory surgery for lung cancer. When I entered her room, one of the first things I noticed was the puckered skin around the PICT line that was in her arm. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get that image out of my mind—even when I got back home. In fact, it took over my thinking almost totally and transformed itself into the opening lines of Getting Right. The Betty Boop mouth puckering for a kiss, sucking in whatever came near and never being sated. But an image doesn’t make a novel—at least not on its own.
I felt a story brewing, but it didn’t begin to take shape until somewhat later when my sister, with whom I had a fairly stormy relationship, called me one evening. She knew I was a writer and in the course of our conversation she challenged me to write the story of her life. I thought about it and flippantly said, sure, I’d do it but only if I could tell her story the way I saw it and not necessarily the way she did. After I hung up, I realized what she had presented to me—the nascent structure for the story that had been churning inside me.
A big problem remained, however: I wanted to write a novel and not a memoir. Unlike a fiction writer, a memoirist contracts with her/his reader to be faithful to the external “facts” on which the story being written is based. A fiction writer has no such obligation. That freed me, as a novelist, to develop the story that emerges in Getting Right in any way I wanted. My sister became Connie, by brother became Len, and I became Me, the unnamed narrator. The creation of that distance enabled me to think then about how to structure the work. I decided to divide the narrative into three acts, another artifact that allows greater artistic distance between the writer and any “external” reality that might exist. (There is always some interplay between a fiction writer’s world and her/his work, but the primary focus remains on the created world and not the so-called real one.)
The story that eventually evolved explores not only Connie’s life but Len’s and Me’s as well. And it couldn’t cover those stories without bringing in most of their extended family, so that the narrative becomes a fusion of memory and imagination filtered through the narrator’s point of view and voice. Clearly, in my mind, an intended act of fiction.
What effect has writing this novel had on you personally?
It was an intensely emotional experience. I wept several times while I was writing. I don’t know that creating the novel was psychologically purgative, but I was aware that I was touching a fairly raw nerve at times. I have a feeling that if I had not created the aesthetic artifacts mentioned above, I would not have had the distance necessary to write the story.
I’m pleased with the work I created. I feel that I succeeded in what I set out to do artistically, and that is quite satisfying—and, as any artist knows, not always the case.
What was the best advice you’d give students when you were a writing professor?
Through the years I’ve taught writing from middle school through adult learners and most recently in a certificate of creative writing program at the University of Chicago, the equivalent of an MFA program in terms of duration and expectation. Regardless of academic level, my advice to students fairly consistently came down to 1) work toward developing your unique voice and vision; 2) be serious about your work; 3) remember that your writing is not you but is an artifact that, once produced, is open to examination, some of which might not be to your liking; and 4) don’t write with someone looking over your shoulder—learn to become your own best critic—but when revising be careful not to revise the life out of your work.
What are the three essentials you need when writing a novel?
First, you have to understand the conflict that underlies the story you’re writing. Conflict doesn’t have to involve physical confrontation, although it might. With literary rather than genre fiction, the conflict might be more nuanced. For instance, Getting Right involves, as the title suggests, the narrator’s attempts to get right with his family and with life. Therein lies the conflict, hovering beneath the surface of the narrative but still driving it.
Second, you have to create living, breathing characters readers can identify with. These are the people who occupy the narrative and grapple with the conflict at its center. They are the ones who form the primary connection between writer and reader.
Third, the writer must have a subject in mind that drives conflict and character and every other aspect of the story. Why are you writing this story? What makes you want to tell this story? As Faulkner put it, what is the fire burning in your belly that compels you to put this story forth? What is the passion that burns within you?
What is the one book you can’t stop begging everyone to read?
That’s a tough one. I can’t really name just one book. I would direct people to Housekeeping by Maryilynne Robinson, or The Field of Vision by Wright Morris, or Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. All of these writers address the fundamentals of the art of writing, but I think what they share most importantly is an attention to language and character and narrative structure that are essential to a story well-told.
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