a conversation with John Wray      


Bold Type: What led you to write The Right Hand of Sleep? You are of Austrian descent; is there a connection to your family history here?

John Wray: The main thing that led me to write The Right Hand of Sleep was the extremely poor quality of the book I'd spent the first half of my twenties sweating over. It was a coming-of-age novel, closely based, as most first novels are, on the author's own life. Friends and family members joined together, in their own best interests and in mine, to convince me to drop the project. Once I'd seen the wisdom of this advice, I had no idea how to approach my next book; after more than a year of total indecision, I decided to begin with a place, one I'd enjoy spending time in. The first that came to mind was the small town in Austria where my mother was born and raised.

Niessen, though fictional, was pieced together from incredibly clear and luminous memories of the town of Friesach, in Austrian Carinthia, a place that has barely changed since the end of the war. I also drew a great deal on memory for the details by which to render my characters, particularly the supporting cast, vivid and convincing. Very few of the actual events of the novel have much to do with my own family, I'm relieved to say; Oskar Voxlauer is, in my opinion, a fine human being and a very useful character, but I'd hate to have had him for a grandfather.

BT: Your spare, solemn writing style sets you apart from many current writers of literary fiction. Do you enjoy reading contemporary fiction? Did you make a conscious choice to write differently from prevailing styles?

JW: I did try to give the language a certain patina, but not one that would ring any definite bells. I certainly didn't set out to set myself apart from the mainstream voice in contemporary American fiction, though if the style has that effect I wouldn't mind too much. For me, though, the novel is most interesting as the portrait of a consciousness, namely the author's; in other words, how a twenty-eight year old American writer might imagine a world-changing event like the rise of Hitler, an event he did not witness and which, as such, is essentially lost to him. This fit well with the lost world of my childhood which I was trying my damnedest to recover. The elegiac quality of the language can perhaps be traced back to this double sense of loss. Not that I'm too broken up about not having lived through the Third Reich, mind you. To answer your second question, I read altogether too many Penguin Classics.

BT: Have you been following the series of articles, beginning with B.R. Myers in the Atlantic Monthly, debating questions of serious fiction and style? Myers criticized contemporary writers like Don DeLillo for writing in dense prose and not focusing on creating compelling plots. His essay has provoked defenses of contemporary literary fiction by Ian Jack in Granta, Laura Miller in Salon, and numerous others, but it's also resulted in agreement from some. Do you think this is a question of literary merit, or a question of taste? Do you think there is hostility toward literary fiction in the current American cultural climate?

JW: I haven't been following the debate, but it's hardly a new one. Fiction that favors language and play with narrative over the traditional 1-2-3 formula has been under attack since Joyce, probably much longer. Fiction is an innately narrative form, unlike, say, painting or music; too often, however, this leads to reductive, even reactionary thinking. Literature, particularly American literature, has suffered from it. Not, for the record, that I'm actually comparing Don DeLillo to James Joyce; I'm not that brave.

BT: On the flipside of the previous question, how do you think literary fiction can sustain, repeal, or even begin to address the high/low culture division? How would you characterize your own work?

JW: A certain number of people like to read in our culture; let's say, for the sake of argument, about half as many people as like to think. I'd hate to put a number on it, but at any rate it's a very modest percentage. Fortunately for the writing profession we live in a big country. I don't think in terms of high and low culture, even when sipping on a snifter of dry sherry while watching a little WWF on a typical Sunday night at home; it just isn't fun.

BT: Who are your influences? Reviewers have compared your style to Hemingway's; do you think that's accurate? Growing up with a partly European background, were you exposed to many continental writers?

JW: E.M. Forster's A Passage To India, and Forster's unsentimental humanism in general, had a big influence on me. William Faulkner was an influence, and the early books of John LeCarré. I very much admired the way the Austrian writer Peter Handke allowed his characters to stumble through their bleak lives unassisted in his novel The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and used a similar technique in early drafts of The Right Hand of Sleep. Fundamentally, though, I tried imagining my book as a kind of lost work of modernism; in this sense, the comparisons to Hemingway are permissible, I suppose. But I'm a much more well-adjusted person.

BT: The confidence and detail in your account led me to believe that your writing process may have involved some amount of research. Is this the case? Does a writer have a kind of responsibility to accuracy when writing about a sensitive historical time and place like inter-war Austria? What issues around the question of responsibility differentiate your role as a writer from the role of historian?

JW: I felt deeply uneasy writing about so significant a period in history, of course, and spent my share of time in the library. I hope that isn't too obvious. The main difference, as I see it, between what my kind of writing and a historian's is that once I develop the confidence to start making things up, I can go home.

BT: And speaking of "history," Kurt, the SS officer in your novel, claims, "we're outside of history" and fully expects the Nazi regime to continue for millennia. Would you comment about the possible connection of the danger and power of the Nazi regime to its refusal to acknowledge its human, historical origins? In other words, do you think that Nazi ideology took hold in part because it presented itself as pre-existing and eternal?

JW: Every political or religious movement (and the Nazis were both) seeks to present itself as bearing history's, and even prehistory's, mandate. Christianity did it; Napoleon did it; white settlers in this country did it and called it Manifest Destiny. Rarely, however, have so many people believed it so thoroughly, and so quickly, as Germans and Austrians did in the mid-thirties. A cynical observer might come to the conclusion that National Socialism had in fact been present, in slightly less methodical form, in Germany and all of central Europe for quite some time.

BT: I'm interested in both the seductiveness of ideologies like Nazism or Bolshevism for lonely, unhappy people like Kurt and Oskar and the way Oskar seems to internalize the suffering of his society in what he calls his "attacks." Does the past have anything to teach us about collective approaches to dealing with pain? Or can it only offer examples of failure, like Nazism or Bolshevism?

JW: My novel's focus was on the damaging effect of history, which is essentially brutal, on those unable to ignore it; Oskar should be able to retreat inside the customary cocoon of obliviousness or indifference like everybody else in his little town, but he can't. In the U.S. now, it seems to me, people with Oskar's difficulty are fewer and fewer. The indolence and flabbiness, politically speaking, of the average American makes Oskar's uncle Gustl look like Che Guevara. I see it in myself, too, very clearly. I stopped reading the newspaper years ago. The collective approach to dealing with pain, and even outrage, in our country seems to take the form of listlessness, to put it politely.

BT: And though your characters suffer greatly, you hold them somewhat at a distance. That is to say, your novel is unsentimental and doesn't seem to attempt to produce empathy. Would empathy on the part of readers undermine the uniqueness of the experience you're depicting? What kind of impact do you want to have on readers in the absence of empathy?

JW: Many, many contemporary novels are written to provoke an artificial, pre-chewed sort of identification with their characters. Appropriate thoughts and feelings are conveniently inserted after each significant action, with little verbal flags telling us which plot developments are most important. I've never been a fan of this After-School-Special approach to storytelling. I'm not interested in telling the reader how to feel; I'd rather not insult his or her intelligence.

BT: Part of the reason I felt I wasn't meant empathize with Oskar was the way his character was presented, partially in vivid first-person flashbacks and partially in a third-person narrative that refers to him by his last name. How much of this technique is a narrative strategy, allowing for the slow revelation of backstory and secrets from the past, and how much is a method of character development that permits Oskar to remain enigmatic and even somewhat incoherent throughout the novel?

JW: The alternation of highly personal first-person confession and distanced, impassive third-person narration was meant to illustrate the conflict between Oskar's very active, but suppressed, emotional life and the numbness, induced by various flavors of extreme trauma, that arises out of his deep alienation from society. Oskar presents a flat, perhaps almost a cold, exterior to the world (in which the reader is included), but that itself is a sort of negative-portrait of the world he believes himself to be living in. In a nutshell, Oskar is damaged goods, a casualty of war and of his father's madness and of the failure of his best attempt at escaping his past; I wanted the language used to describe his experience of the world around him to reflect this.

BT: I was very interested in the kind of thematics of straying from the linear in your novel. Your narrative technique swerves between past and present, and first and third person. Oskar seems to have this impulse to rearrange history as a straight line or linear narrative, while he views Kurt's Nazism as a perversion of the course of history. Also, the main characters seem to have an ambivalence toward lineage - Oskar and Else have strange memories of their fathers, and Else is dependent on yet repulsed by her cousin Kurt. Were you trying to use this theme to tie the novel together, in form and content?

JW: The Right Hand of Sleep is primarily Oskar's story, and as such takes its shape, as I mentioned above, from his fractured, melancholy way of remembering and living. Not only is the tone and mood of a great deal of the novel deeply colored by Oskar's consciousness, but its structure is as well. Oskar's desperate need to give order to the terrible sequence of events that make up his biography is a common symptom among sufferers from shell-shock and of post-traumatic stress disorder, as it is now called. The desire to account for himself to his father's ghost, which motivates him to begin his confessions, is a function of this as well. In the ambivalence which many of the novel's characters feel toward their fathers and, to a lesser extent, their families as a whole, I was endeavoring to catch the reflection of my own ambivalence, and that of many Austrians and Germans my age, toward the complicity of past generations, the true measure of which will likely never be taken, in the brutality of that far-off time and place.

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