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An Interview with Robert Wilder

Robert Wilder is the author of Nickel: a novelselected by Booklist as a Best Young Adult Book of 2016. The book launch will take place next Friday, September 16 at 6 pm, at Collected Works Bookstore & Coffehouse in Santa Fe, NM with a reading and book signing by the author.

Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?  I grew up in two places: Point Lookout on the east end of Long Island and Westport, Connecticut. When we lived in Point Lookout (population: 1500), my brothers and I had to endure an eternal bus ride to and from Sacred Heart Catholic School in Hempstead. I was a quiet kid (and terrified of nuns), so I had ample time to stare out the window and daydream during that 90-minute drive. Like many writers, I suppose, I still like to stare out windows and daydream.

When did you first start writing?  I knew no writers growing up except for my dad’s friend Phil Dougherty who was the advertising columnist for the New York Times. Even though I secretly wrote since I was little, I didn’t think people like me were allowed to become writers or artists. This belief lasted well through my undergrad years at Wesleyan where I snuck into readings with my soccer mullet and short shorts to hear Annie Dillard, Richard Wilbur, or student-writer Alexander Chee read. I went into advertising myself after college, and it took a violent departure from that world to come to Santa Fe and start writing seriously in 1990.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?  When I was in second or third grade, I desperately wanted to be a cartoonist. I remember that I tried to make one of those flip books and was scolded for wasting paper. I think my parents felt guilty because they enrolled me in a stop action cartoon course a few towns away. Half of the class was tasked to do an illustrated film set to “Monster Mash”; my group was sadly assigned the anti-war ballad “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” by Paper Lace. When the teachers saw my artistic ability, they told me that I could draw the bricks in the background of our film. When they saw how my bricks turned out, they said, “Not so many bricks.”

What’s the story behind your latest book, NICKELNICKEL is based on over twenty years teaching teenagers as well as having two of my own. One of the most rewarding moments as a teacher is when you read the work of a quiet or quirky kid and you see that he or she has this wild (and often quite funny) interior life. I’ve also witnessed how much my students have had to deal with—divorce, death, illness, violence, loneliness, neglect, and I marveled at how they coped. When I started writing NICKEL, I heard Coy’s voice as an amalgamation of so many of intriguing kids I’ve known over the decades. I just followed that voice as honestly as I could.

What do you admire most about today’s teenagers?  So much. I love: 1) the way my daughter Poppy can send me a song by some obscure band that is exactly what I need to hear at the time, 2) the deep-rooted empathy of my son London, 3) the incredible creativity and possibility of a young artist, 4) the way a sharp kid can spot a liar a mile away, 5) the ability of a student to discover something new in a text I’ve read over 20 times, 6) teenage fortitude to withstand formidable challenges without complaining, 8) how hard a LD kid can work just to learn or do as well as their peers, 7) the unbridled passion, joy, honesty, sadness, and silliness.

What is the greatest joy of writing for you?  I think most writers will say that joy comes from process rather than product. Don’t get me wrong, I am deeply proud of NICKEL, and I love what Leaf Storm has done with the book. I’m very excited to hear what readers think. However, when I am at my dining room table in the early morning hours, lost in a world I’ve created, trying to get things as right as possible, and the sun is streaking yellow and red across the sky, I am in heaven. I fight hard for that time; I feel lucky to be alive.

What is your writing schedule?  Since I teach high school full-time and have two kids, I need to carve out my writing hours early in the morning. I’m usually writing by 5 am, but I have been known to get to my kitchen table earlier if on deadline, or I’m really humming on a project. I also write in cafes to break the routine. I know all the coffee shops in Santa Fe and can easily give you their pros and cons (if you’re in the market). There’s a café with bad Wi-Fi called The Good Stuff that I adore. The lack of decent internet keeps me focused (and the riff raff elsewhere) and since they sell vinyl, they will play you any record you want. My friend Natalie has them play Bob Dylan the whole time she is there.

Who are your favorite authors?  I have so many. For contemporary fiction, I love Antonya Nelson, Robert Boswell, Lorrie Moore, Samantha Hunt, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Tom Perrotta, Nicholson Baker. For contemporary nonfiction, I love Augusten Burroughs, Amy Fusselman, Gary Shteyngart, Emily Rapp Black, Steve Almond, Natalie Goldberg, Greg Martin, David Shields, Sarah Manguso. Poetry: Tony Hoagland, Laura Kasischke, Mark Halliday, Billy Collins, Dorianne Laux, Matthew Dickman, Dorothea Lasky. I teach Flannery O’Connor, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Toni Morrison, Mary Gaitskill, Eula Biss, Karen Russell, Junot Diaz, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Denis Johnson, Jamaica Kincaid, Karl Ove Knausgaard.

What do your fans mean to you?  Having someone you don’t know (or who doesn’t owe you money) say nice things about your work is pretty amazing. With my first book, DADDY NEEDS A DRINK, I loved receiving emails from parents who said they felt as if I was writing about their own family’s escapades. Even better: when wives wrote to let me know that DNAD was the only book their husband ever read cover to cover. I look forward to meeting and interacting with readers of all ages to discuss NICKEL and their own stories of what it’s like being a teenager now or in the past. The greatest gift someone can give your work is prolonged attention. That’s what reading is, and I deeply appreciate every page turned.

What are you working on next?  Besides grading essays, I just finished the latest of many drafts of a novel called LITTLE WHITE MAN. It’s about a father and son con artist team on an eventful drive across the West. The son, Charlie, has a secret that I’m reluctant to share but imagine: Paper Moon meets The Gift (for all you movie buffs). I’m also working on a television pilot based on my two previous books and my life now as a single dad. In line after that is a book of comedic letters, a memoir, and a screenplay.

Describe your desk.  I live in a cozy 1920s adobe house owned by a famous landscape photographer and once inhabited by Jan Kerouac, Jack Kerouac’s daughter. When I moved in, the first thing I had to do was install bookshelves everywhere I could, including the kitchen. I write at my kitchen room table with three shelves of books behind me, starting with The Answer To The Riddle Is Me by David Stuart MacLean and ending with Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. I feel supported having those 200 or so books at my back and people love to pull titles from the shelf and read passages out loud when we’re having dinner.

UPCOMING EVENTS

Friday, September 16 at 6 pm: Reading and Book Signing at Collected Works Bookstore, Santa Fe, NM. Introduction by Julia Goldberg. Portion of the proceeds to benefit the Quincy Conway Scholarship Fund.

Thursday, September 22 at 6 pm: Reading and Book Signing at Bookworks, Albuquerque, NM. Introduction by Greg Martin.

Thursday, September 29 at 8:30 pm: Reading and Book Signing at the Poison Pen Reading Series. Poison Girl Cocktail Lounge, Houston, TX.

Friday, September 30: Visit to Greenhill School, Dallas TX

Saturday, October 1 at 2:30 pm: Moderator “Where Loyalties Lie” Panel, Texas Teen Book Festival, Austin, TX

Saturday, October 1: Reading and Book Party, Hill Country, TX. Details TBD

Friday, October 7: Fall Discovery Show, Mountain and Plains Booksellers Convention, Denver, CO

Thursday, November 3-Sunday, November 6: Sanibel Island Writers Conference, Sanibel Island, FL

Friday, November 11 at 7:30 pm: Reading andBook Signing, La Sociedad Para Las Artes Reading Series, Health and Social Services Building, Rm 101A, NMSU, Las Cruces, NM

Thursday, December 1 at 7 pm: Reading and Book Signing and Homecoming, Westport Library, Westport, CT. Introduction by Augusten Burroughs

Wednesday, February 8-Sat February 11, 2017: Leaf Storm Press Panel, AWP 2017 Annual Conference, Washington DC.

Interested in scheduling a book event for Nickel with Robert Wilder? Please contact us at leafstormpress [at] gmail.com