August 23, 2013

Working Writers Series: William Torrey

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Today’s Working Writer is William Torrey

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Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born and raised in San Antonio, TX, and went to college at LSU. I always figured I would end up becoming a lawyer, like my father, but I ended up taking a class called Short Fiction that really threw me. I found myself exposed to short stories that were startlingly real and moving, and for the first time in my life, I became intellectually engaged. From then on I decided I wanted to become a writer. I got an MFA in fiction writing from Georgia College, where I was able to work on a literary magazine and teach classes in writing and literature. When I graduated, in 2010, I wanted to keep teaching, but the job market was at its worst, and I couldn’t find a gig. So I threw caution to the wind and moved to New Orleans, where I managed to land a last minute job teaching composition at UNO. In the years since, I’ve also taught in a small, East Texas town called Nacogdoches, and I now live in Baton Rouge, where I teach at my Alma Mater, LSU.

Since my last year in grad school, I’ve published stories in Washington SquareColorado ReviewNew Madrid and The Hawai’i Review, and my story “Trabajar” won Zone 3’s 2011 Editors’ Prize. I’m now halfway through my first novel, Recession, a second-person book about a guy who finishes school with a creative writing degree and can’t find a job. He’s forced to return to his hometown, where he works as a part-time yardman and constantly endures run-ins with his rich-kid former classmates. The book is a bildungsroman, but one that’s tailor-made for the MFA generation–a young storyteller trying to understand the story of himself.

How would you describe the MFA generation? Was it your experience in your program that inspired the novel?

The MFA Generation is a term I use to characterize a specific set within the Millennials. In my eyes, middle-class children of the ’90s grew up being largely overpraised. Our parents told us we were gifted and special. We were always winners simply for trying. Of course, reinforcing your kids is important. But my generation became overly-saturated. Many of our parents did well financially. They escaped to suburbs, and the world became smaller and less scary, less diverse. They had only to compete with one another. And so they devoted themselves to the betterment of their kids almost obsessively–maybe even to a fault. This made our generation soft and gave us an unrealistic impression of life, one that was especially dangerous for kids who were artistically inclined. When you choose to pursue art, you have to realize you’re choosing a life potentially filled with rejection and loneliness. More so, you have to accept that you very likely won’t make it–or at least not in the way you’d initially imagined. But in this echo-chamber age of nurturing and encouragement–at home and in the arts classroom–one can easily forget that. But, whether or not you’re artistic, I think our generation’s common struggle stems from the financial meltdown that occurred just as we were all becoming young adults–just as we were ready to inherit the lives we’d always been told we deserved. Our collective expectations were subverted. The legends of our ensured success proved inaccurate.

The novel I’m working on isn’t so much inspired by my experience in an MFA program as it is by the way I felt directly after finishing one. The day I completed grad school was the day I realized I’d allowed myself to buy into the idea that I, too, was special–that while thousands of my peers struggled to find their place in a tanking economy, I would somehow find success–and, of all things, as a fiction writer. I went home to my mother’s that summer and worked as a part-time yardman. And as I did, I ran into a lot of people my age who’d been much more pragmatic. People who’d majored in business. People who were just finishing law school. Upon seeing them, I felt angry at my own callowness. How could I have so blindly allowed myself to wade into a life so unrealistic, I wondered. I felt victimized and duped. And for a long time, I worried I’d screwed up my life. My protagonist finds himself asking similar questions. And that’s the setup for my book.

Why do you think that artists, MFA grads or not, are always stuck defending the “practicality” of their profession? 

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever found myself having to defend the practicality of my job or my choice of trying to become a writer. Maybe I’m just lucky, but when I meet someone, and they ask me what I do, I’m often pleased to see them delighted by what I describe. The life of a writer who’s also a full-time college teacher is by no means perfect–I don’t make a lot of money, and there’s the always-onerous task of grading–but it’s certainly not a bad one. If a person were ever to imply that my life was impractical, I think my only response would be to say that their life seems equally impractical to me. I could never dream of working in an office, or selling some product, or going to meetings, or dealing with clients, or what have you. And I don’t mean to say that those jobs aren’t fulfilling or worthwhile to others. It just isn’t me. We are who we are.

Artists, and writers in particular, spend a lot of time commiserating and focusing on the negatives. But I think it’s important–and here I’m reminding myself–to address what’s good. In the end, I have a job that I find stimulating–and often fun–and which affords me time to write and edit. I have the summers and winters off, and on workdays, if I’m feeling listless, I can walk down the hallway, find a likeminded person and escape to a coffee shop. If that sort of life is impractical, then that’s okay by me.

Do you remember which stories you read in that Short Fiction class? What was it about them that made you want to pursue this over becoming a lawyer?

I think almost all the stories we read in that class shook me up. I was a junior in college by then, and I’d already taken a number of literature classes–mostly surveys that covered centuries and jumped from genre to genre. But the characters those classes presented always seemed separate from my reality. They were distant, realistic but not real, cogs in an allegorical machine.

Not so with Short Fiction. The course had a singular focus and introduced me to contemporary writers like James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, William Maxwell, Richard Ford, and Raymond Carver. And it made my assigned readings strikingly more accessible. Here were portraits of everyday people, I thought, the very men and women I saw rambling up and down the streets near LSU’s campus or tipsy at one of the Tigerland bars. The stories siphoned me out of my life and into a world that was at once strange and familiar, one where misfits shot pleading grandmas, and drunks and blind men got high and drew churches.

But, really, I think the greatest lesson that class taught me was that men and women the world over–people with real voices and heartrending stories–were still writing. To be honest, when I was that age, I don’t think I understood that literature was a living thing. It might sound naive, but when you spend most of your life as a student reading work by authors who have been dead for hundreds of years, I think it makes sense.

This class was certainly a watershed. Until I’d taken it, I always figured I’d end up an attorney–a job I still think I would’ve been good at. But after I was moved for the first time by literature (for me, the story was Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation”), I felt this new pressure, like I owed it to myself to try to tell a story that might someday move someone else, even if it took me forever. I remember having this very concrete sense, at twenty, that if I didn’t at least try to become a writer, I’d probably regret it for the rest of my life. And so here we are.

I feel compelled to say that it wasn’t just this class that changed me. It was also the man who designed it: my teacher, the writer Randolph Thomas. Randolph not only made those stories come to life with his own passion for them, but down the road, through college and grad school, he became a mentor to me, someone who not only helped me become a stronger writer, but who encouraged me to stay the course. Randolph has had a major impact on my life, and he’s a testament to the power of devoted teachers. I’m happy to call him my friend, and I’m doubly glad to call him my colleague now at LSU.

On your novel, what was your decision to write in second person? Have there been any struggles or tribulations with voice, or tone? 

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? The second person, for reasons I’ll never quite understand, isn’t exactly the most popular kid at the party. In fact, a professor once explicitly told me never to use it. It bugs people, I guess—or maybe strikes them as a gimmick. But when it’s done right, I think it can be masterful. There’s Bright Lights, Big City, of course. But more recently, there are stories by Junot Diaz and Wells Tower, and Patrick DeWitt’s great debut novel, Ablutions.

My own novel, Recession, is deeply personal. It’s the story I wanted to tell the moment I finished grad school, the moment I found myself beginning to unravel as my life as a student drew to a close. I began to work on it, as a second person short story, in the summer of 2010, but back then I was way too close to the source material. The story I was trying to tell wasn’t done being told yet. I knew I was in a tight spot and feeling down—that I was struggling—but I couldn’t come anywhere close to capturing those feelings in a way that felt real or engaging. So I put it away and moved to New Orleans. I got my first teaching job and wrote a few new stories. But all the while Recession kept coming back—as different iterations of a short story, as a novella, and, finally, as a novel. And each time, no matter what, it came back in the second person.

I say my novel is personal, and that’s true. But my novel isn’t just about my story or me in particular. The You in Recession is not simply Will Torrey—or Luke Thomas, as the protagonist is called. The You is the entire MFA Generation, everyone that spent their adolescences and early adulthoods getting too many pats on the back only to find themselves suddenly twenty-five and without a plan, without direction. It’s not, however, a book that casts the MFA Generation as victims. Far from it. Ultimately, it’s about learning to take ownership of your decisions. It’s about not running away. That’s why I think the second person is right for it. The delivery is inherently confrontational, even discomfiting. And if you’re from the MFA generation, that’s exactly what you need. After all, you’re the one who got yourself into this mess. And now you have to get yourself out.

Lastly, it gives you the chance to write lines like, “You tell yourself to go fuck yourself,” which I find comical.

Who do you think are the writers that the MFA generation ought to be reading?

Two writers immediately come to mind.

The first is Dale Ray Philips, whose only book, the story collection My People’s Waltz is an absolute knockout. The pieces follow a character named Richard from childhood to midlife, through an upbringing fraught with an absent father and a mother in psychological distress, to an adulthood of less-than-savory occupations and dealings with women, and an on-again, off-again relationship with Lisa, his ex-wife and one true love. The book is brimming with well-crafted and memorable characters, and the prose is some of the finest I’ve ever encountered. But beyond its myriad aesthetic achievements, the book is most impressive, I think, because of the heart and tenderness with which Phillips writes. These are stories that demonstrate a keen understanding of human nature and emotion. They’re stories written by an author who’s truly lived.

The next writer I think everyone ought to read–whether or not they aspire to be writers themselves–is John Jeremiah Sullivan. Sullivan, I think, is the most engaging, intelligent and flat-out funny nonfiction writer since David Foster Wallace. In his essay collection, Pulphead, he writes a wide range of pieces that offer unique glimpses into American folklore, the lives of musicians and a host of other pop culture phenomena. (“Michael,” his short piece on the inner life of Michael Jackson, is one of the best essays I’ve ever read–period.) And whether he’s getting high in Jamaica and interviewing Bunny Wailer, or driving an enormous RV to a Christian music festival, or describing the ancient art in Tennessee’s unnamed caves, the writing is always just north of fantastic. Sullivan is a natural. He makes writing look easy–like the process of it might actually be fun.

William Torrey can be found on Twitter @wsealtorrey or on Facebook at Facebook.com/wstorrey. He is also a contributing editor at Trop (www.tropmag.com).   

About Alison Balaskovits

A. A. Balaskovits is a Ph.D. student in Fiction at the University of Missouri and the curator of the Literature on Lockdown series for The Missouri Review. You can follow her on twitter @aabalaskovits or at aabalaskovits.com

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