Woody, Rush, Elvis, and the Allure of Funny/Sad: An Interview with Confirmed Suburbanite and Cul De Sac Author Scott WrobelBy Steve Almond
May 03, 2012
I’m not going to waste precious time blabbing about how awesome the stories in Cul De Sac are. (You’re busy. I get it.) I’ll only say that I never intended to read the fucking thing. Why? Because I’ve got two small children at home and, like, six other books I’m supposed to read. I only read the thing because I couldn’t not read it. Which is annoying. And also kind of awesome.
Your stories are what I think of as funny/sad. You use comedy not to keep despair at bay, but to express forgiveness. Say something pretentious about this, please.
As Woody Allen once said, “Humor is a defense mechanism.” Or maybe it was Woody Hayes who said that (after he punched that dude in the throat that one time).
I’m grateful you think of my stories as funny and sad. Those are my main goals. Finding the right balance between humor and (approaching pretense) pathos is hard, but also the best way to deliver a story because it’s honest to the way humans are: complicated, troubled, and hilarious.
I believe, as an artist and therefore as a commentator on the human condition, that it is right and good for us all to laugh at the misfortunes of other humans, so long as we see their misfortunes as our own. That, I dare say, is the essence of empathy. (Is that decent pretentiousness?)
At the same time, I also mistrust art that idealizes humans because it sets the bar too high for unremarkable people like me. Humans are not all that special, as Mr. Rogers asserted. I love a lot of older literature and art and philosophy that idealizes people (the Greeks, the American pastoral painters, etc.) because it’s an honest reflection of the thinking in those times, but we moderns should know better by now. My suburbanite characters are barely functioning adults, and, as a great television theme song once asserted, “there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.”
As I was reading the stories, especially the ones where you’re breaking down the internal dynamics of a marriage (like how Gary’s wife Liz sighs all the time, and what those sighs mean) I kept thinking: what (the fuck) does Scott’s wife think about these stories?
My wife thinks the Liz character is based on this other lady she doesn’t like much, and so she gets a kick out of the scene where Liz complains about how overwhelmed her life is becoming due to the stresses involved in raising a son and managing a scrapbooking club. I think it was Jonathan Swift who once said that “Satire is seeing everyone’s face in the mirror but your own.” Or was it Jonathan Papelbon who said that? I’m banking on the truth of the Swift/Papelbon supposition in order to keep my personal life stable after releasing Cul De Sac as “fiction” to my family. But seriously, my wife is more concerned about being confused for Betty, the grossly obese wife in “After the Lovin’” who tries to shed weight by reading self-help books that help train the brain to “think away” lipids. I am comfortable knowing I will spend my eternity in a lake of fire, like in that one Bob Seger song.
Back when Cheever was doing his thing, the suburbs held a certain allure. Now everyone’s embarrassed to be from the suburbs. Why aren’t you?
In addition to living in the suburbs and being freaked-out by them, I did a lot of reading about them and worked my way through the familiar arguments against suburbia, as breeding grounds of malaise, corporate materialism, racism, anti-intellectualism, religious conservatism, homophobia, fear of art and artists, resource-waste, sprawl, wetland destruction, and all the stuff in the Rush song “Subdivisions,” including the righteous synthesizer opening and Geddy Lee’s rolled-up blazer sleeves in the official video. I studied the sociological analyses of the American suburbs for quite some time but decided not to take too much to heart because I feared the “ideas” would seep into the stories and make them sound like I was trying to deliver a message.
Also, like I sort of talked about in the first question, I’m comfortable with the impossibility of realizing a perfect-world, and the suburbs are fascinating on that level alone. I’m still amazed at how the propaganda about the suburbs sold to people after the Big War as the solution to all life’s problems is still believed by so many even though reality indicates otherwise. Since I don’t have those unrealistic expectations about my setting and can find solace in other venues such as bookstores, meditation gardens, and pharmacies, I find the suburbs fascinating the same way I find Elvis fascinating; though the music is okay, it’s the story itself that’s truly amazing, the fanaticism and mythos and absurdity, the final slump toward the bathroom floor.
I admire that you’re able to break down your people, and yet remain compassionate toward them. Clearly you’ve had therapy. Yes?
Not outside of the court-orders, no.
I’m grateful for your compliment about compassion towards the characters. That’s a huge deal to me as a writer/person. I try hard to present the characters through action, dialogue and description and as a narrator try to stay hidden in the background so that the audience can deal with the characters directly without my interference. I don’t want to tell the readers how to feel about these people; I try to think of my narration style as follows: holding a video camera on my characters, pressing the record button, and keeping my mouth shut instead of providing commentary, which usually detracts rather than enhances, as evidenced by my family Christmas-videos where I voice-over narrate in order to come across as in-control and knowing, saying things like, “And here’s Jimmy opening his present. I wonder what Santa got Jimmy.” And then Jimmy will say, “Shut up, Dad. You’re the one who said Santa Claus was invented as a marketing ploy.” And I’ll say, “I don’t have a son named Jimmy. Who the hell are you and how did you get in my living room?” I think most storytellers know exactly what I’m talking about.
I also try hard not to idealize my characters. When I read books or watch movies that present characters as extraordinary hero-types through big-bang-ass drama and sentiment, I feel like I’m on the receiving-end of a time-share presentation rather than experiencing a sincere story that tries to show something truthful about human experience. Deceiving audiences by over-inflating human potential is the job of marketers, politicians, and corporate acolytes, and I try to cut through that skullduggery by presenting characters as troubled, complicated, and sometimes incapable of changing or “improving,” and delivering that reality is way more interesting and challenging than writing about healthy people. In the story “The Sac,” like life, there are a few winners and a whole lot of losers (to paraphrase George Carlin – but he was talking about children; I’m talking about grown-ups and kids). In my book, it’s okay for my characters to fail, or to just stay the same. No great heroic transformations are required of my characters.
Were you ever pressured to try to turn Cul De Sac into a “novel in stories”?
Yes, in the early stages I was nudged by some to market the book as a novel in stories, and even some agents, upon my approach, flat-out told me they wanted a novel instead of a novel in stories or a collection simply for salability. They were polite and direct about this, which I appreciated. But I intended for each story to stand-alone, and trying to weave them together into a standard Freytag pyramid sort of arrangement seemed false (the form didn’t fit the content, as they say). It was also hard to do, and I did attempt it by writing a Cul De Sac screenplay, trying to mimic the Raymond Carver/Robert Altman Shortcuts-style, but then the story became a different story, and as a result (approaching pretense), I “compromised my original vision” and thought about quitting trying to sell the book altogether, and right around then is when Paula Bomer of Sententia Books rescued me from the ledge.
Thankfully, Paula, who is not only a terrific publisher and editor but also a great writer, understood and supported the idea that the collection ought to remain as such. And then she helped make it better by strengthening the shape of the book by grouping the stories that tell the tales of the principal character, Gary, into a novella, with each story presented in chronological order. These stories comprise the second half of the book, “The Ballad of Gary Weigard.” And still, though each story is presented as a “chapter” chronicling Gary’s middle years, each remains originally titled and stand-alone. I’m fortunate to have a publisher who trusted me and “got” what I was trying to do and made it even better by seeing things that I couldn’t. Artistic integrity remained intact and was enhanced by an ideal publisher/editor/writer relationship. I am big-time grateful for that.
Have you ever tried the French dish Cul de sac?
No, I don’t eat food anymore because of the diabetes (“I can’t feel my toes!”), but I do know that one of the literal French translations of “Cul De Sac” is “The Ass of the Bag.” And speaking of Cul De Sac as the title, it is a metaphor. More pretentiousness: not only is a physical cul de sac the setting of the stories, the place where these men live and drink and complain, but the cul de sac is also emblematic of the larger “American-Suburb-As-an-Idea” and also connotes “death” in its “dead-end/terminus/no outlet Sartrean existential” definitions, as both the physical and mental space where men stagger about until their organs give out. Each story is about death in some form, each man fumbling through crises that involve real deaths, the death of the self (inner, psychic death), and/or the characters staring forward shock-eyed at approaching death. These are stories about men on the brink of physical/psychological/spiritual annihilation.
But my main goal is laughter. And in addition to writing high-minded literature, I want to selfishly announce that I am starting up a career in life-coaching in order to share my inner light with others.
What smartass question have we failed to ask?
I can only think of one:
Q: “What does it feel like to write about a character’s admiration for Engelbert Humperdinck without irony or condescension?”
A: The best way I can describe it is that it feels an awful lot like riding in a beautiful balloon, which is often suspended on a twilight canopy, and the balloon, to me, symbolizes the hopes and dreams of us all, driven by the strength, optimism and perseverance that was inserted into us by our forefathers.