Wideman on Campus, continued
Lorene Cary: Youve written fiction, nonfiction, and in your fiction the names of your own family members appear. They come back, they double, they redouble, as you interweave family stories and imaginative narrative together. Many of my writing students struggle to understand the relation between their own livestheir own experiences of their autobiographiesand their fictions. Im hoping that you can talk a little about how you approach that question.
John Wideman: Nothing like a nice straightforward,
easy question to begin with. [Laughter] So Ill start off with a simple
answer: Life is fiction, fiction is life. The construction of reality
is politics at its most basic level. What constitutes anyones reality?
Well, its what you believe and think is important, and so your reality
depends upon; how youve been brought up; what culture tells you about
yourself; what your friends tell you about yourselfand from all these
bits and pieces each of us begins to put together some sense of what counts
Cary: Something that clearly does matter are the ethical choices made in choice of subject, choice of form. [For instance, the technique of using actual names in your fiction.] All forms require choices. What are some of those choices that you make?
Wideman: To answer that question, I have to look back at 30 years of writing, and my writing has changed, I hope, during that period. My opinions have changed as much as my approach to writing has evolved. Right now, the basic rule I follow to keep straight the ethical and moral dimensions of distinctions between fiction and nonfiction is this: I try as much possible, as clearly as possible, to keep the reader informed of what I think Im doingeven though I know what I think Im doing is not always what Im doing. But at least I attempt to let the people know: Hey, Im writing this story about my brother, and its based on interviews, but the interviews werent transcribed. I carried the interviews away in my head and wrote them down, sometimes a week later, and checked them with my brother, got the substance right to his understanding and mine, but Im responsible, reader, for the words on the page. These are not exactly my brothers words, but he sort of gave them the OK. If the reader is given this kind of info, were in good shape.
Cary: [James] Baldwin said that in America we give celebrity to our writers and that its ruinousthat celebrity is not the same thing as true appreciation or true admiration but is a different thing that can be corrosive. Im wondering about how the whole issue of writers and celebrity versus appreciation has affected you? As someone who has been writing for a number of years [and] has managed to keep goingwhos not been a flash in the pan, who produces work that allows himself to be seen growing and maturing and changing through the workyou have much to tell us about that.
Wideman: Ive been fairly lucky because the
acceptance of me by a reading public has been very gradualits still,
from my point of view, gradual. Im not a writer who has ever sold enormous
numbers of books. Im a writer who has a substantial readership among
university people, for instanceenough of my books are taught in university
classes to keep my publishers vaguely happy. The book that sold most in
hardback was Brothers and Keepers, and Im pretty sure it never
sold more than fifty-odd thousand copies. Minor league in terms of whats
expected by publishers for megabooks. No work of fiction has come close
to those numbers.