J.P. Gritton in Conversation with Matthew Buckley Smith

JP GRITTON’s novel Wyoming, a Kirkus best book of 2019, is out with Tin House. His awards include a Cynthia Woods Mitchell fellowship, a DisQuiet fellowship and the Inprint Donald Barthelme prize in fiction. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, Southwest Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor of creative writing in the department of English at Duke University.

MATTHEW BUCKLEY SMITH is Associate Editor of Literary Matters.

This conversation took place December 16, 2019, in Carrboro, North Carolina. It has been edited for clarity and length.

JP GRITTON

We talked about the NYRB series?

MATTHEW BUCKLEY SMITH

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JPG

So, they just put out this book called Fat City, by Leonard Gardner. And Denis Johnson, who I know you have kind of mixed feelings about—

MBS

I just haven’t read the books everybody loves.

JPG

Well, he always mentions this guy, Gardner. But the book’s about an amateur boxer in California. Fat City— I think it’s slang for Sacramento. And it’s about this amateur boxer making kind of a wreck of his life. So it’s twelve dollars, and I was like, NYRB has done it again. They’ve found the diamond in the—

MBS

It makes me wonder who’s their—?

JPG

Who curates it? They have all of Kingsley Amis’s good, weird novels. And they have Stalingrad. And then John Williams. And Oakley Hall.

MBS

Well, before we talk about every other good book ever written, we should talk a little about your novel, Wyoming. This is a dumb question, but I’m always curious: What is your writing practice?

JPG

It depends on, like, the pitch of semester workload, but—usually I try to hit five hours, the first five hours of the day. More or less daily. And the days I teach, it’s probably more like three. You know, I put off grading, or writing some e-mail, or whatever. But I think you’ve got to count a lot as writing time. Like, if I walk down the street for a jug of milk, but I’m thinking about a scene, that to me is—it’s the same. I have to think of it that way, because otherwise I beat myself up.

MBS

You can’t just count the time when words are coming out of your fingers.

JPG

A lot of it is staring into space or going on a run—I mean, I don’t do that. But— I think writing takes many forms. So, hopefully it adds up to five hours a day.

MBS

Sounds pretty good.

JPG

It’s pretty good. It’s been really hard, lately, to hit that. I think I’m just less productive if I don’t have the structure of teaching—

MBS

To set off the time that’s available.

JPG

Netflix is calling my name.

MBS

All right, so, since you first mentioned Wyoming, I’ve been curious about the title. And then, reading the book, I only got curiouser. Because my sense of the geography of the American West is loose at best, but much of the book takes place in a town called Montgrand, Colorado.

JPG

Yes.

MBS

And the first three hits when I googled Montgrand, Colorado, were “JP GRITTON,” so I’m assuming it’s made up.

JPG

It is.

MBS

OK, so part of the story takes place in Montgrand, and part of it takes place in Houston. But there are also a few notable mentions of Wyoming. The protagonist, Shelley, pawns a stolen air compressor in the first few pages, in Cheyenne. But most of the references to Wyoming are about a movie. About Close Encounters of a— of the Third Kind. I always get the article wrong.

JPG

Yeah, I was talking to Mesha [Maren], and I think she really put her finger on it. She was also curious about the fact that Close Encounters, like, Shelley’s obsessed with it.

MBS

And the title elevates its importance.

JPG

Sometimes a name feels right, and then the theme and content coalesce around it. I mean, Close Encounters of the Third Kind—it was in every draft, but it didn’t have that kind of prime role. It wasn’t really until almost the last draft. And I think my subconscious mind kept pushing me there because part of that movie is about the failures of language. And I think for Shelley, reading his emotions is impossible. You don’t know what he’s feeling or why he lashes out in these ways.

MBS

It seems like he has a hard time reading his own emotions, as well as other people’s. He’s aware that something is being communicated, but he has a hard time identifying what it is.

JPG

Right, right. And I think, for me, that movie, that quest to—I don’t know—to unpack this urge that you have, that you don’t really understand what it’s about or why you’re making a mountain out of mashed potatoes—I think Shelley’s on a very similar trip. So the novel started out as a whole lot of chicken scratches in a few different notebooks. And I knew I wanted to send the first chapter out to magazines as a standalone. And there’s a line in the first chapter where Shelley says—he’s crossing the line from Colorado to Wyoming—and he says “I always expect Wyoming to look different, but it never does.” So that was how the story got its title.

MBS

There’s some feeling that he’s waiting for, that he identifies with the state.

JPG

Yeah, and it’s just never going to live up to the promise. And then as we were shopping the book around, there was a bit out of Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson. And the girl in that book turns ‘to wyom’ into a verb.

MBS

Right, ‘-ing,’ like Heidegger and ‘noth-ing.’

JPG

“Wyoming my whole life.” It’s this beautiful, lyrical paragraph I wanted to include as an epigram, but nobody went for it.

MBS

We love the book, but lose the quote.

JPG

It was one of those things where I could just tell from the reaction of the editors that they were like, “Oh, neat idea.” And, just, we never discussed it again, and I…

MBS

Quietly deleted it.

JPG

Sorry if I’m laughing. Yeah, so I never pushed it.

MBS

Part of what’s really engrossing about the novel is the challenge of figuring out why Shelley does the things he does. He’s not without empathy, he just doesn’t know how to function. How to be a person.

JPG

I always wanted to write a story with Iago as the protagonist. There’s a moment in the play where Othello is freaking out and feeling cornered, and he turns to Iago for solace, and Iago looks at him and says, like, “I’m your man, I’m with you.” I’m paraphrasing, but he’s like “Whatever you need, I’ve got.” And that’s one of the great things about drama. You can read that line any which way, and maybe it was just part of the game or maybe it was totally in earnest. Maybe it was just that slight snub.

MBS

He gets passed over for promotion.

JPG

Yeah.

MBS

Like, maybe Iago wishes there were a different play. Where he could have been—

JPG

Yeah, I don’t think you can reduce Iago. That’s why he’s so fun to play with.

MBS

He rejects any definition of himself. I think he says “I am not what I am.”

JPG

There’s something akin to that in Shelley. I wish I was better at diagnoses, like, does he have poor inhibition control? Or something.

MBS

I don’t know if that would make you a better writer.

JPG

Yeah, I think if I knew the type I was trying to write, I would not have had that much fun.

MBS

You don’t want to follow a diagnosis. You want to follow a voice.

JPG

And he just had some hurt. He had hurt, but also just an intense amount of plain old human selfishness, you know?

MBS

He’s consistently impulsive, but he’s not consistently selfish. There’s a really touching moment early on. His best friend Mike is married to Shelley’s sister, May, and their daughter, Layla, is dying of cancer throughout much of the book, pretty horrifically. There’s a moment when Shelley—though he’s by no means rich—he offers to take in Mike’s entire family into his little apartment. He has this dream, like, May and Layla can stay in the bedroom, and Mike and I can just crash on the couch in the living room, and it’ll be great! He genuinely has this idea that there could be a world, there could be this other life, where things would be kind of OK.

JPG

Maybe, in a weird way, that is Iago. Like, Would that we could turn back time and he could just give me the promotion. Wouldn’t that be great?

MBS

And if I can’t live in that world, I’m just going to burn this one down.

JPG

Right, or start to burn it down, and, like, Oh, that was really nasty and rotten, what I did.

MBS

Iago does seem to be driven by malice. Whereas Shelley seems to want what’s best for Mike, even if he isn’t quite able to stick to it. I can’t remember exactly where it is, but Shelley refers to Wyoming as being something— He wanted to go there with Mike, or he had some idea—

JPG

It’s mentioned as sort of— They’re watching Close Encounters, and I think Shelley sort of brings it up as, like, “It’s just nice country.” And that’s precisely what brought Mike to Colorado—with [Shelley’s brother] Clay—um, and that’s sort of the… Not to get too grandiose—

MBS

Please do.

JPG

It’s a little bit Jacob and Esau.

MBS

Yeah!

JPG

This guy just does his brother dirty and dirty and dirty and dirty. And it’s all with the idea that there’s this greater purpose. And the wrong son is indeed the one that gets rewarded. I mean, that’s one of the weird and wonderful parts of that story. Is, like, Esau’s a standup guy.

MBS

And in the end he’s profoundly forgiving. He welcomes Jacob back with open arms, saying “I’m so happy to see you again, brother.”

JPG

At the end of the day, your family has to take you back.

MBS

As much devastation as plays out over these two hundred thirty-six pages, Shelley and his siblings are much closer to one another at the end than they are at the beginning.

JPG

Hopefully I end it on such a note that it’s clear that’s going to be an uphill battle.

MBS

Oh, there’s nothing rosy about it.

JPG

Without being too heavy-handed, I needed Shelley to change. And for him, the final capitulation, the final bit of crow that he needs to eat, has to be recognizing that Clay is an OK guy.

MBS

This character who has every reason to do Shelley in, to rub him out, by the end, seems basically to—like Esau—to welcome him back. The book tempts, or maybe taunts, a certain kind of reading. It’s so full of images and motifs that you could spend a dissertation pulling it apart.

JPG

Do go on.

MBS

But it also seems to care more about story. Like Shelley would laugh at me for deconstructing his choices.

JPG

The first person feels very intimate. It feels like he’s going to make an admission. And in some ways he does. But also he’s not saying everything.

MBS

OK, well we could go on being people who studied literature, but I want to say for the record that, while there’s a lot to digest and pull apart here, the book is actually, like, a funny, gripping, exciting, fast read. That’s really what it is. It’s a sort of dark but highly amusing thriller that, if it were a movie or a play, would make you go to the bar afterward to argue for hours with whoever you saw it with. Criticism sometimes talks so much about what books mean that it forgets about what they do, which is, really, to entertain.

JPG

Well, thank you, man. It’s funny. The kind of short-story quality of the chapters— Some people are, like, That’s great, like, Good job. And some people, the reaction has been Boy, that thing dragged.

MBS

So, recently a friend of ours, in a candid moment, made this remark about contemporary fiction. He said the ingredient that’s consistent across all the books that are really successful today—he’s talking about novels—he said that, at heart, all of these books are wish fulfillment. Which put me in mind of Freud, you know, because he argues that, no matter how horrifying the dream, on some level it’s actually wish fulfillment. And our friend claims that if you write stories that aren’t wish fulfillment, then you’re never going to be a bestseller and you’re never going to win a Pulitzer. Reading Wyoming, I thought, well, there’s certainly a lot of wishes, and there’s causal change and motivation—even if it’s sometimes chaotic motivation—and there’s even a kind of desire for more community or closeness or organization of some kind. But it never does quite fulfill anybody’s wishes.

JPG

It’s such an interesting way of framing it. I think there’s something to it, honestly. And I’ve had that experience of coming close to the end of a book and it’s just sort of, like—You really shouldn’t have done this. I just finished Killing Commendatore, the [Haruki] Murakami novel, the latest one. And that’s a writer with a ton of commercial success, and it put me in mind of the one he wrote before that, 1Q84, where again it wasn’t— Obviously it’s not Star Wars, right? It’s not opera, it’s not somebody confronting The Bad Guy. It’s not—

MBS

The Hero’s Journey, which I always sort of hate.

JPG

Yeah, it’s not that, but it kind of is. Where he’s both doing it—or kind of nodding to it—and something else is running interference. I always think of his book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

MBS

The only one I know is Norwegian Wood.

JPG

So that novel’s another example of this thing he does where it’s sort of like— If the plot is cherchez la femme, right, if that’s what this is about, he gets there, but he also kind of doesn’t get there. And yeah, I think landings are hard to stick. I don’t know. I want Wyoming to sell. As far as the end of the book, I do read it as a happy ending in some ways.

MBS

Yeah?

JPG

And not— I guess that’s not a shorthand for wish fulfillment. Because you’re saying you can have something quite dark that still feels like wish fulfillment. Do you think, like— So does tragedy still do this? Because in some weird corner of our soul we want the two star-crossed lovers to die? I mean, Hamlet—that totally makes sense to me. He has to die, and he has to take the world with him.

MBS

There’s a book I read recently called The Death of Tragedy, by George Steiner, that’s kind of his broad account of why tragedy is this remarkable artistic human achievement that’s actually quite rare. And how only certain periods in time and certain writers have ever allowed it to exist. Americans don’t have an appetite for tragedy. Not old-fashioned, suffering-at-the-hands-of-indifferent-gods tragedy. And in Wyoming there is a feeling that, even if the characters made what would have been the more right decisions, there’s still Layla, who’s just struck by a fucking lightning bolt from the heavens and dies as this innocent sweet little kid for no reason at all. And there’s nothing they can do. Even the most powerful characters in the book are, sort of, in the bigger scheme, helpless.

JPG

Yeah, I mean, you’re kind of diagnosing some things that are—

MBS

This is turning into a personal therapy session?

JPG

No, it’s not even that. It’s like, Gee, I hope this book sells well. But I don’t know that it’s going to—

MBS

Jesus Christ.

JPG

—given everything you raise. But I think Shelley’s wish, even if he doesn’t know it, is to belong. And I think that when you’re composed of the contradictions that he is—that everybody is—in 1988, wanting what he wants, being who he is, I think he gets just about as close as he can. So I don’t want to read it as a tragedy, but there is something awfully tragic about it.

MBS

Well, the darkest part of the book is not the ending.

JPG

Now I’m sort of wanting to go back and revise and make it into a Hollywood movie.

MBS

We’re publishing—I think in the same issue as this interview—a short story that you’ve given us, called “The Golden Youth,” which is written in a radically different voice than the novel, but is set in the same world, concerning some of the same characters. You’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of ink writing about this world. How do you think about that?

JPG

I think there’s a tension between, like, writing some of this as short stories and some of this as novel chapters that are parts of novels that are themselves in fact part of a trilogy. It really sort of humbles you as a writer. Because what it boils down to is genre. Like, where can this get published? And it’s amazing how much a plot is totally contingent on market forces.

MBS

Was that something you were aware of when writing?

JPG

No, yeah. Like, when this was a two-thousand-page multigenerational epic on my desktop, I wasn’t really thinking about that.

MBS

I mean, the Bible sells pretty well, right?

JPG

Yeah, me and the writers of the Bible and good old John Steinbeck. Some of it was just recognizing the hubris of that.

MBS

Because Wyoming is a sleek little book. It doesn’t feel like an enormous epic crammed down into a novel.

JPG

Well, thank you. I mean, there are people on Goodreads who disagree. I actually— You know, the criticisms that stick with you tend to be the right ones. And it was something my agent actually said. Like, she was drawn to the noir. Like, Shelley’s in a hotel room, he loses money, how does he figure that out?

MBS

You could describe Wyoming as a crime novel.

JPG

You could. It’s not what I’m trying to sell, but…

MBS

To me it felt like a Flannery O’Connor novel where there is no God.

JPG

Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s a Southern Gothic.

MBS

Set in the West. I read this, like, clickbaity thing on LitHub that said You’re either a New York City writer or a Southern writer. According to that dichotomy, this is definitely a Southern novel.

JPG

That explains why no outlet in New York would touch it with a window pole.

MBS

Well, if you live in New York City, this book might as well take place on Mars.

JPG

I mean, that’s a whole other…

MBS

You don’t want to burn your bridges with potential future New York publishers!

JPG

Oh, God. So, we were talking about…

MBS

This being an epic, or a portion of an epic.

JPG

Oh, yeah! Part of why I knew this had to become its own thing was that the plot of this is—I mean, it’s sort of important to what happens in the second part of the epic story— But the next novel takes place in the late fall and early winter of 2001.

MBS

So, originally, Wyoming was the first third or so, the first chunk, of a three-part story. Wyoming takes place in 1987 and 1988, and then the second part takes place in 2001…

JPG

And the last bit around the recession, like 2007, 2008. And I kind of knew generally—

MBS

Which had echoes of 1987, when the stock market died.

JPG

Well, I mean—

MBS

From the New York perspective.

JPG

Yeah, I think there are some economic groanings in this.

MBS

Work dries up. Things burn. They don’t get rebuilt.

JPG

Yeah. So in the second book, a kid who’s been sort of wrapped up in the drug trade, and has gotten his adoptive brother—a theme is emerging—involved in the drug trade, winds up dead. And the second book is about unraveling that mystery. And by the end of the book it’s almost unraveled. And again, if we’re going to talk about this in terms of genre, I think I’m going to have to change it so it gets completely unraveled for the second novel. You know what I mean? That’s how the mystery genre works.

MBS

The truth has to come out.

JPG

So basically in the second book, Clay and the girls have moved back to Crockett, and Aileen is involved with this kid who gets murdered. And if I had my druthers, I wouldn’t want the murder resolved in book two, I would want that to wait till midway through book three. But nobody’s going to bite on that.

MBS

Do you know Donna Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend?

JPG

I want to say you’ve lent it to me. It’s not the one about the kids who kill the guy.

MBS

At Bennington. Or not ‘Bennington.’

JPG

Is that it?

MBS

That’s The Secret History, her first book, the runaway success out of nowhere. And then ten years later comes The Little Friend, and it’s this delicious small-town-Mississippi murder mystery that ends with— Well, if you got to, like, page five-ninety, you would think it ends with complete resolution and the mystery is solved and there’s an only slightly mitigated happy ending. But then in the last five pages of the book it becomes clear that, no, actually, we know nothing. The mystery is not solved. And I wasn’t paying attention to these things at the time, but I discovered after the fact that, I think, for a lot of readers it was a bit of a disappointment.

JPG

Wish fulfillment.

MBS

Yes! And then The Goldfinch, which—I mean, I love Donna Tartt. But The Goldfinch ends with, uh, an almost literal deus ex machina, and it wins the Pulitzer! But The Little Friend is my favorite. It’s the darkest, and it feels true.

JPG

The mystery genre, there’s something about it that really lends itself to that. Like, 2666 [by Roberto Bolaño] enacts basically what you just described. There is resolution, maybe, but it kind of—or it nods in the direction of truth. But what’s happened before then is just seven hundred pages of madness. And that feels… true. There’s just something about the genre.

MBS

It creates a desire to learn the truth.

JPG

I forget how Poe puts it in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”— There’s the creative and the resolvent. We’re given a set of data, and we’re supposed to make some kind of meaning out of it. That’s life. And I think a much more honest way of telling that story is to say, on page five-ninety, Oh, just kidding, you don’t know shit.

MBS

I think the line is, like, “She’s the smartest person I know!” And his older brother says, “Oh, she’s real smart, for a kid.”

JPG

Oh, fuck.

MBS

Right?

JPG

That’s it! I’m a little disappointed to hear that Donna Tartt stole my novel idea, because that’s basically what happens in mine.

MBS

Speaking of which, I don’t know if you want to mention anything about what you’re working on right now.

JPG

The speculative?

MBS

You’re working on a new book that is not part of the Wyoming universe.

JPG

Yeah, I’ll give the elevator pitch. It’s 1970. Basically the situation is that Harry Truman lost the ’48 election. And Thomas Dewey won, and shortly after that he’s visited by what he claims is the voice of God. And the voice of God commands him to make five hundred human sacrifices. The rub is that—and this is every year—the rub is that if this doesn’t happen, a plague of boils will descend upon the earth. There’s some dissent, though.

MBS

Presumably.

JPG

Right. So, the plague of boils does arrive when people don’t follow through. But there’s some dissent, because a lot of people think it’s some crazy multinational conspiracy, and that it’s a colossal hoax.

MBS

Jeffrey Epstein.

JPG

Yeah, Jeff Epstein is behind the whole thing. So in the midst of the conflict is this guy, Horace Braxley—

MBS

Good name.

JPG

—who’s this mid-level official in this bureaucracy, who’s charged with making sure that the selection of the five hundred virgins is equitable.

MBS

The principles of liberal democracy remain in place?

JPG

So, the usual workings of government have been dissolved, and in their place is something called… This is not at all the elevator pitch.

MBS

Sure it is.

JPG

This is way longer.

MBS

We can edit.

JPG

Yeah. I’ll tell you how it ends after we stop recording.

MBS

Any last thoughts? Because you’re doing a tour of sorts, so you’ve been getting a lot of questions. Any wisdom for writers or reviewers? Or interviewers?

JPG

The weirdest thing is meeting people and feeling like they’ve read the book better than you ever did.

MBS

Oh, man. You’ve never been interviewed by Ryan [Wilson]. He’ll prepare a whole, like, critical monograph on your book.

JPG

I’m afraid.

MBS

Be afraid.

Matthew Buckley Smith

Matthew Buckley Smith

Matthew Buckley Smith is the author of Dirge for an Imaginary World (Able Muse 2012). His poems have appeared in AGNIBeloit Poetry JournalPoetry NorthwestThreepenny Review, and Best American Poetry. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and daughters.
Matthew Buckley Smith

Author: Matthew Buckley Smith

Matthew Buckley Smith is the author of Dirge for an Imaginary World (Able Muse 2012). His poems have appeared in AGNIBeloit Poetry JournalPoetry NorthwestThreepenny Review, and Best American Poetry. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and daughters.