SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: DAVID WINNER
David Winner’s first novel, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, won the 2009 Gival Press Novel Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. His work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and garnered a Ledge Magazine fiction contest award. He has been published in The Village Voice, The Kenyon Review (upcoming), The Iowa Review (upcoming), Fiction, Confrontation, Joyland, Bookforum, and Dream Catcher, among others. Winner is the fiction editor of The American. His new novel, Tyler’s Last, is an homage to Particia Highsmith, the last years of her life, her work's obsessions, and the mythology that has tied them together.
David Winner! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?
Many years ago, I was the co-editor of fiction at the Sonora Review. We felt that we were giving the writers we published an enormous boost, even though we only paid them in copies and printed just a few hundred altogether. Soon afterwards, I started submitting to magazines myself, and receiving the smallest publication would be like downing pure serotonin. I’d be glowing for days on the rare occasions that I got paid fifty dollars or so. Years later, I was explaining to my writing students about literary magazines as a good way to start publishing and how many submissions they’d get (I once got a rejection from the Indiana Review on which “submission 9834” had been scrawled). They were totally flummoxed by the idea of so much competition for so little financial gain. And it is a weird thing if you distance yourself from it. But I can’t. The idea of making much money from my work in general feels pretty impossible. I have no idea how much I’ll end up making from Tyler’s Last, but when I consider the years of work I put in, averaging two or three dollars an hour would be a best-case scenario. Like waiting tables without getting tips.
Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?
Maybe if I lived in the 1930’s, or some part of the world with an exchange rate wildly favoring the dollar. I’ve never conceived of it as a livelihood. When I was younger, I considered myself an “experimental” writer. It was a convenient way to shield myself from rejection — the old “they just don’t get it” trick — and lowered any expectations of serious cash. Self-fulfilling or otherwise, that prophecy has proven true. In order to make a living, I trod down a well-traveled road: MFA to community college. When I passed thirty and saw only adjuncting on the horizon, I acquired a sort of accidental PHD at NYU in what was basically Rhet Comp. I will take this opportunity to confess one of my most excruciating secrets: the topic of my dissertation was actually my own writing. I was contemplating an unwieldy study of community college creative-writing students when an older professor suggested that I study my own writing instead. Narcissistic qualitative studies were in vogue in progressive education, and, suddenly, I saw a way of actually getting the thing done. When people have found about my secret PHD and asked the topic, I’ve always mumbled something vague. I will say in my defense that it had nothing to do with any notion of my writing being particularly good. Rather, it was an attempt to puzzle out something about process, what comes from invention and what comes from experience. (And, yes, it worked, I got a tenure track job. )
If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?
Typical of community colleges, the load is heavy, but it is still a pretty good gig for a writer. I have about five months off a year. When I got tenure, I did not quite do what those evil anti-teacher Republicans suspect — cease to care about teaching — but I did get rid of most everything else. Some meetings, sure, but no committees or administrative work. All in all, it’s been a good scam. Write dissertation about yourself, get tenure, and go from there.
How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?
Unfortunately, I often don’t, or at least didn’t in the past. I would get captivated by my own words and characters and only very gradually begin to see the flaws lurking in the shadows. Only after forcing myself to keep away from something for months could I return and find problems. I had worked for years on Tyler’s Last and was upset at first when Jon, the editor at Outpost19, suggested some pretty major edits, but later I decided he was more often right than not.
When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?
I stop revising when I return to a piece after a gap of time and don’t particularly feel the need to toy with it any more. I have kind of an OCD approach to revision, which involves printing many copies, and strains the cheap printers I tend to buy. After a long series of infuriating printer collapses, I took the latest one down to the basement of my apartment building when no one was else was around and kicked the crap out of it. Just throwing it out was nowhere near enough.
Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?
I don’t know that writing is either a choice or a calling...more of a habit, an addiction. And publishing, trying to get more and more recognized, is another one. I wonder if I’ll ever be satisfied. A friend who has reached what I think of as an absolute pinnacle is not. As a kid in college, we were made to read some terrible thing by Joan Didion (who is really great, I know) about writers being somehow more intuitive by nature than non-writers, which I can say from personal experience is not necessarily true. On the other hand, there are those who genuinely want to use their writing to heal and to enlighten, while I just want to entertain, surprise, and occasionally offend.
BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?
I read plenty of stuff too young to understand, but was never particularly haunted. I did, however, read something that I considered myself too old for, acted snotty, and then received my just desserts. The Pearl, ninth grade. It seemed like such treacle that I just couldn’t shut my snotty-nosed English-professor-brat little trap about it, and the teacher, a magnificently big-framed former tennis pro whose iced teas reputedly contained bourbon, lead the class in a game of “throw the book at the annoying student.” Flimsy paperbacks. I don’t think they hurt.