Wells Tower is a name that sounds like it should belong to an Ivy League educated stockbroker, or perhaps a bored, cocaine-snorting rich kid in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. In fact, as short story aficionados and surfers of the literary zeitgeist know, he’s one of the hottest new names in American literature, with his debut short story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, garnering rave reviews from critics and impressive word-of-mouth among readers. All the people I know who whispered excitedly about Nam Le’s The Boat last year, in the months preceding its publication, have spent this year enthusing about Tower – with good reason.
The first thing that strikes you about the collection is how finely turned its stories are, with prose that sings with every sentence. It is packed with accidental revelations, with flawed characters who give themselves away, allowing the reader to know them better than they knew themselves. Fractured lives navigate fraught territory. A footprint on a car windshield gives away a husband’s infidelity, and sees him banished from his home. A first date comes to an abrupt end when a child is hurt. “I like people who are in trouble,” Tower said. “People who are experiencing some kind of extremes in life.”
Tower has been publishing short stories since 2001, when The Paris Review published ‘Down Through the Valley’, a story about a man whose wife has left him for her meditation instructor, a California hippie named Barry.
But his public success began a year earlier, when he went undercover as a “carny” (or, a ride operator at a carnival) for The Washington Post. He meant to do it for three months, but lasted five days, he told the packed Melbourne Writers’ Festival audience at The Festival Club. “Participatory stories are a lot of fun,” he said. “Doing that story was fun, though I was terrified the whole time I was doing it. There wasn’t a single person working there who hadn’t done prison time.”
He described the process of writing the story – that he’d be composing paragraphs in his head while working and would run out to the toilet and scribble them down when he could, then later piece them together.
Following the publication of the Washington Post story, Tower started to be approached to write more. He got an agent. She didn’t last long. He gave her two short stories. “She said, ‘they suck, I’m not sending them out’,” he recounts. He’d already given them to The Paris Review, who – much to his shock – picked them out of the slush pile and published them. That was the end of the agent. The Paris Review publication was especially heartening because its then-editor, George Plimpton, was a hero of Tower’s. “His participatory journalism inspired me to do the carny story.”
Over the next several years, Tower continued to write and publish his short stories and journalism in publications like Harpers, McSweeneys and The New York Times. After a couple of years of publishing stories, he started to get queries from publishers about putting out a collection, but – unlike most writers in his position would – Tower kept saying no. “I knew the stories sucked,” he said. “There’s no point in sending out stories you don’t think are good. If you don’t think they’re good, no one else will.”
Of course, these stories that “sucked” by Tower’s high standards (but were published by the likes of The Paris Review) are in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – but, in most cases, in a much altered form. When it came time to revise the stories for the book, he reports being “kind of disgusted” by most of them. One story (in my opinion, one of the best in the book), ‘Retreat’, was entirely rewritten from the point of view of another character. It’s a story about two ultra-competitive, very different brothers who have never quite got along but are the only family each other have, set over a couple of days together at one brother’s rural mountainside retreat, which he plans to commercially develop. The fulcrum of the story is the intense rivalry between the brothers and the strange yet prosaic way it plays out. “I thought it would be more interesting to rewrite it from the point of view of the more morally compromised brother,” Tower reflected.
Moderator extraordinaire Chris Flynn, the Melbourne-based editor of Torpedo magazine, asked at what point Tower would stop revising a story. “I think when it gets to that point where someone says to me, ‘you’re upsetting me, it’s FINE’. I do think it’s important, when revising, to get back to the point of what the emotional thread of it is. It’s about trying to install a bleeding heart into the story and not just a bunch of clever lines.”
While Tower said that his magazine reportage often inspired or informed his stories, he was adamant about avoiding autobiographical storytelling. The story he wrote about a carnival, inspired by his virgin assignment as an undercover reporter, “wasn’t about a young journalist working undercover at a carnival”, he pointed out. What he did take from his experience was the feeling of the carnival, the kinds of characters who worked there and situations that might arise. “I think any time I do write about my own life I try to abstract the things I’ve gone through, to find the cold machinery of it.” Otherwise, he said, there’s the risk that he’d write “treacly self-confession”.
“It’s about getting to a place where your characters are real to you, where you know them and you’re not dressing up a whole bunch of statistics and research to pretend they’re real people.”
Who does Tower read and recommend? Among the names he passionately recalled were Lorrie Moore (a newish favourite of mine), Deborah Eisenberg, Denis Johnson, Flannery O’Connor and Richard Yates – one of my own all-time favourites. “I think he’s about the best short story writer you could find,” he said, describing the novels that followed his revived classic Revolutionary Road as “really depressing”. (A fair assessment.) “But in a short story, he doesn’t have the time to build up to an apocalypse.” He especially recommended the story ‘A Really Good Jazz Piano’.
“I try to snack on a short story every day when I’m writing,” he said.
Asked for advice for aspiring writers, Tower underlined the importance of a revision and a trusted reader, “two really important tools”. He said that it’s taking him longer and longer to write a story. (“I used to be happy with a story after three months.”) On revision, he said: “People think that revision is like cleaning up after the party, but you come to realise that revision is the party. For me, I’ve realised there is no party.”
Tower comes across as charming, ever-curious and possessed of a dry wit, peppering his conversation with wry observations and deprecating one-liners. But more than anything, you come away from hearing him talk with the conviction that he is a serious writer, passionately dedicated to his craft, and to the exhausting, never-ending pursuit of getting it right.
“I’m a believer in literature. I’m not a church-goer or anything, but I have a tremendous belief in literature and its power to transform.”