From a New York Times By the Book Interview With Author Teddy Wayne Who Wishes Humor Were More Present in Literary Fiction

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Teddy Wayne Mises the Purity of His Adolescent Reading”:

Alejandro Zambra’s “Chilean Poet.” The rest of my night stand is currently taken up with children’s books, including the entirety of Graham Oakley’s “The Church Mice” series, a witty, mostly out-of-print 1970s British collection I loved when I was young, and Jack Gantos and Nicole Rubel’s “Rotten Ralph” books, about a house cat whose snarky misbehavior is a refreshing tonal shift from most books for kids.

Alison Espach’s “Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance,” which came out in May. Despite its tragic subject — grief over a teenage sibling’s death — it’s somehow very funny in between wrenching passages. I’ve reread the profound and moving final page several times the last few months.

In August 2005, I arrived in St. Louis to pursue an M.F.A. in fiction writing, toting along a number of books of Quiet, Serious, Literary short stories, the kind that I, a sensitive young man exquisitely attuned to the unheard melodies of the human condition, hoped to learn to produce myself. Deep in my luggage I also stashed “The Da Vinci Code,” which I thought I probably wouldn’t read or reveal my possession of to anyone in my program. (I ended up telling one classmate and received a scornful look.) Missouri welcomed me with 90-degree misery and an apartment with no hot water, a clogged kitchen sink and exposed wiring. As I adjusted to my new surroundings that first week, I picked up Dan Brown’s novel and couldn’t put it down, regardless of the quality of its prose. So, if satisfying a pronounced need for escapism is one criterion for a great book, then “The Da Vinci Code” is a masterpiece.

It would be when: I’d return to between the ages of, say, 16 and 21, when I read fiction as a malleable aspirant hoping for a world-shattering experience rather than as a critical practitioner ferreting out technical guidance; when the faraway land of publishing had, for me, an aura of mystique, as opposed to my current insider knowledge of how the industrial sausage is made; when every professional fiction writer seemed like a prophet and a sage (I’ve disappointingly turned out to be neither); and when I regarded certain works of literature as quasi-sacred texts, a veneration I have a harder time maintaining now. This is not to dismiss my more sophisticated engagement with books in midlife that didn’t obtain in my youth, nor to suggest I’m completely disillusioned about the business of writing by having become a working author, but I miss my purer adolescent relationship to reading. Maybe I’ll recapture some innocence in my later years.

No one has heard of it because it doesn’t exist as a book, at least not yet. An ad-industry retiree named Judith Lichtendorf has taken eight fiction workshops with me in New York since 2016 through the 92nd Street Y and the Center for Fiction. I wish I could take credit for her virtuosity, but she came to me fully formed. Her story “Death of a Daughter-in-Law,” in Post Road Magazine, is representative of her work: incisive, dark, funny gems delivered in terse, icicle-sharp prose. If there’s any justice, some editor will snatch up her other fiction and turn it into a collection many people will hear of.

I most admire anyone who writes without seeking excess attention or expectation of external reward — and especially those who know no attention or reward is coming and nonetheless pursue their craft with passion and diligence. As for people whose work I always pay attention to, I’ll look at any fiction by David Szalay, essays by Zadie Smith, journalism by Zeynep Tufekci, plays and screenplays by Kenneth Lonergan, graphic novels by Nick Drnaso and humor pieces by Simon Rich.

On top of any nonfiction research, I try to find novels that have parallels of theme or sensibility to what I’m writing, in hopes that their magic will rub off on me. For the novel I’m working on now, I reread “The Talented Mr. Ripley” for a reminder of how Patricia Highsmith uses third-person point of view and describes a very specific emotion I’m aiming for in the ending.

Not a subject, but I wish humor were more consistently present in literary fiction. Nearly every fiction writer I know has a good sense of humor in person, but once they sit at a desk, a disproportionate number render the world without an ounce of comedy. I need at least a little of it, for the sake of enjoyment and to sustain some optimism about the human experiment.

This summer my wife and I are moving for the sixth time in as many years due to various circumstances, some within our control (babies, poor decision making), some not (pandemic, greedy landlords). As we foolishly live in overpriced, underspaced Brooklyn, 95 percent of our books have been in storage the last two years, alphabetically housed in wooden crates, which are convenient for stacking in unlikely configurations in small apartments, annual relocation and feeling like a college freshman when you’re ostensibly adults with young children. So I organize most of my books, I am sad to admit, on a Kindle.

A three-decades-plus-old copy of Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”

To quote a character in a writing workshop in Noah Baumbach’s movie “Kicking and Screaming” (and I’m paraphrasing myself here), “the main character has a little Holden Caulfield crossed with Humbert Humbert.”

Yascha Mounk’s “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It” is a good primer on the issue that should be dominating every day’s headlines. I would not recommend any palace-intrigue account by a political reporter that has saved, for a well-compensated book, damning quotes and information about, let’s say, an attempted self-coup that should have been responsibly reported on in a periodical months or years ago.

My taste is often at odds with that of the literary establishment, and some advice I heard a few years ago, that life is too short and there are too many good books to finish the ones you don’t like, has stuck with me. But rather than point out the emperor’s new clothing, I’ll highlight a couple of new debut novels I’ve read that I fear may not get the attention they deserve. Conner Habib’s “Hawk Mountain,” about a man’s re-encountering his high school bully, is a tightening-vise story concerning the repercussions of repression. In Ashley Hutson’s “One’s Company,” a woman wins the lottery and recreates the microcosm of the TV show “Three’s Company.” The premise recalls Tom McCarthy’s “Remainder,” but it’s an original, evocative and superbly written metaphor for artistic loneliness.

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