Hypertext Interview With Robert Wilder

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Interviewed by Christine Rice

Robert Wilder’s novel Nickel focuses on socially awkward Coy doing his damnedest to excavate high school’s treacherous landscape. His best friend Monroe – who kicks ass and takes the names of Trees (as they refer to the popular kids) ­– holds her own in the social outcast category but, as the novel progresses, begins to succumb to a mysterious physical illness. And as if being a dork in high school and having a sick best friend wasn’t enough, Coy is negotiating a home life with a relatively cool (and hopelessly devoted) stepdad while his mother is recovering in a psychiatric hospital.

Wilder’s wry sense of humor, his use of teenage dialect (even when it’s spot-on and cringeworthy), and his nuanced look at family adjusted my sympathy levels and reminded me how tough life can be for teenagers. And after teaching for over two decades, Wilder knows a thing or two about teens.

Christine Rice: I’m always interested in and simultaneously aggravated by marketing labels. I tend to read everything and anything that catches my attention (including series like Harry Potter and The Golden Compass) including fiction geared to young people.

There is this piece published in Inside Higher Ed that investigates why English Departments should embrace Young Adult Fiction. I’ve always found it confusing that books are lumped into these categories. I mean, would Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye now be marketed to a different audience? And does it matter? And what would be their legacy if they’d been target-marketed?

Robert Wilder: These are all great questions. I’m not a huge fan of labels either, but I also understand that humans like to categorize and simplify. Booksellers feel they need those target audiences to market to readers. I always love to hear readers and writers defend the quality of supposedly “lesser” art. Look at the graphic novel. Twenty years ago, no one was teaching graphic fiction and memoir in higher ed, but now the form is respected in all grade levels. When I wrote Nickel, I was just trying to write the most honest book I could. I never considered genre or category while I wrote. I think it’s a bad idea while composing to consider anything other than getting pages finished. The publisher decided to position Nickel as a YA crossover because they thought it would get a larger audience. Even my first book, Daddy Needs A Drink, straddled a fine line between humor and parenting. I think a writer’s job is to write and a bookseller’s job is to sell.

CR: And what do you think about English Departments taking a good hard look at the books marketed to teens and including them on their reading lists?

RW: I think you teach texts that help your students become better readers, writers, and thinkers. There are many great books that aren’t as teachable as supposedly lesser works by the same author. It all depends on your students, your course, and your ability to teach.

CR: Nickel investigates a few sources of teenage angst: mental illness, physical illness, the breaking up of family, bullying, fitting in, cliques.

You’ve taught for 25 years. It seems commonplace for kids to deal with so many issues – struggling parents, drug addiction, broken families, bullying. Did that surprise you as a new teacher? Did the ’emotional’ side of teaching take you off guard or were you prepared?

RW: I teach at a small, independent day school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I visit other schools as often as I am able. Every community believes that they are in some ways disconnected from the larger society. I’ve heard for decades from students and parents that their school is a “bubble” or not the ”real world.” I always remember Richard Hugo in The Triggering Town saying, “I hate that phrase ‘the real world.’ Why is an aircraft factory more real than a university?” My empathy and understanding of suffering has definitely grown, but I think every generation has its problems and every school has its shit to deal with. I think you need to teach the “whole child” the best you can while understanding you cannot save anybody. You can only see them, pay attention, and offer support. It doesn’t mean your heart is not broken all the time; you just handle it better. Teaching is the saddest pleasure after all.

CR: Coy’s suburb reflects his emotional state: everything is absurd and messed up. You capture Coy’s disillusionment and his suburban town beautifully throughout, especially at this moment:

My shirt was slick with sweat from lugging my messenger bag. I couldn’t ask Mrs. Alpert for a ride. Did I say how mixed-up I felt? I passed a house with midget pine trees in front, like a forest for little people, then an old lady in a satellite dish of a hat spraying Roundup in the cracks of her bone-white parking lot she mos def called her garden. I thought of my own mom downward-dogging it in a stress-free yoga class or sitting in one about how to superboost your self-esteem. What words would they use to describe the world outside El Dorado? Home would probably make her cry. Real World would make her think she wasn’t alive or maybe crazy, and I know she never watched the reality show on MTV.

Can you talk about how you settled on Red Rock as the setting for Nickel?

RW: When I first moved to New Mexico from Manhattan in 1990, I noticed the way locals oriented themselves using the mountains. In Santa Fe, it’s the Sangre de Cristos; in Albuquerque, the Manzanos; Las Cruces, the Organ Mountains. When I was thinking about Coy, I knew he’d need some sort of orientation landmark, something to ground him (as we say in Santa Fe) when things start to fall apart even more. The West is such an interesting paradox. You have this amazing beauty and climate and history, yet there is also decay from westward expansion, oil booms, forest fires, and the market crash. Coy has to work hard to see past the strip malls toward natural majesty.

CR: Is your job, the fact that you work with kids all day, every day, the reason you wrote the book? Or what was the hair trigger idea, the seed of Nickel?

RW: Nickel was really a love letter to all the oddballs, outsiders, and fringe kids that go unnoticed or unseen a good chunk of the time. As an English and writing teacher, I’m so fortunate to have access to my students’ prose and poetry. Other people may see a very limited version of a teenager, but I get to peek inside their mind a little. Over the years, I started taking notes and thinking about giving a kid like Coy a voice. In full disclosure, Coy is also based a bit on my son, London, and what I remember feeling when I was in middle and high school.

CR: In what ways has teaching fueled your writing?

RW: In so many ways. Since I teach literature, I’m able to read and reread great books by authors like Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Flannery O’Connor, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I can really study their prose as well as how they structure and shape a book. We have an amazing foundation here called the Lannan foundation, and they have an outreach program that brings writers to work with my students. Each year, before the writer visits our school, I’m energized by teaching a body of work by writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard, Karen Russell, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, Tony Hoagland, Margaret Atwood, Jamaica Kincaid and many more.

Even after twenty-six years, I still love being in the classroom. Teenagers are so alive, and they keep me current and on my toes. Each day, I ask about new ideas they have, new fashion and music choices, new slang. Teaching high school forces me to pay attention to the world.

CR: The main character, Coy, is just trying to keep his head down and get through high school. He and his best friend, Monroe, are joined at the hip. But Coy’s mom is in the hospital and Monroe is getting sicker and sicker. At times, it seemed like it was Coy and Monroe against the world.

I felt a little betrayed (in a good way) when Avree entered (because I knew that Monroe wouldn’t deal well). Were you surprised by Avree’s appearance in the narrative? Or do you plot out the overall story arc?

RW: I had no idea that Avree would appear the way she did. I love that part about writing. If you keep your ass in the chair, you just might make surprising discoveries. When Monroe could no longer attend school, I wondered how Coy would cope. Without giving anything away, the way he meets Avree is a complication I see often in high school. Even though Avree is a welcome new friend, Coy still feels as if he is betraying Monroe. I love that poem by Czeslaw Milosz called Ars Poetica? In it he writes, “The purpose of poetry is to remind us/how difficult it is to remain just one person/for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors/and invisible guests come in and out at will.” I love that. I venture to guess that most people struggle to be one person. Coy definitely has a hard time keeping all his personas together: son, stepson, friend, boyfriend, student, self. Avree sees one side of Coy no one else does, and he needs that.

CR: The overall first person narrator’s voice and internal perceptions is so realistic and you didn’t shy away from using words that kids use (like ‘ghey’). You didn’t censor Coy. Can you talk about why it was important to present an honest teenage character (in tone, dialogue, thoughts) on the page?

RW: I tried to be as honest as I could by using internal and spoken language that Coy would employ. Some readers really love the range of his voice; others object. Coy and Monroe use language as many things—shield, probe, liturgy, experiment, form of intimacy, weapon. We all do. If you spend time with teenagers and get any access to their thoughts, you know that they are constantly trying out new language. When you are attempting to write a voice-driven work, you learn that the voice is particular to that person in that place and time. There is no absolute “teen voice,” the same way there is no absolute “adult voice.” I’ve known kids who only speak in obscure references and sound effects; others sing more than they talk. We all possess our own unique code.

CR: This is your debut novel. What did you learn about the overall process? Or what was the most surprising thing you learned about the publishing process?

RW: My first two books were with a big New York publishing house. Nickel is with a small independent press. I think I learned how hard it is for a book from a small press to get attention. I’m not complaining, but I see now what machines big publishers are. They have publicity and advertising departments who know what they’re doing and long-standing relationships with media outlets and reviewers. You see a lot of the same names on the ‘best of” lists of books. Part of that is because they are good books; another part has to do with the difficulty of taking a risk on a book or author no one knows. That being said, if you are willing to work hard to get an audience for your work, there are ways to break through. I was very lucky to have a publisher who loved Nickel and early readers who were willing to support the book through blurbs and other ways of recommending the novel.

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