Thursday, November 7, 2013

Daniel Wallace talks about BIG FISH, my favorite novel, film and Broadway Show

Imagine watching a Broadway show where the stage becomes a drowned city. Where mermaids flip their tails downstage. Where your heart gets smashed and rebuilt. That magic comes from a novel (which was also a magnificent film), Big Fish, by Daniel Wallace, about fathers and sons, dreamers, and the stories we tell ourselves and others. Wallace is also the author of Big Fish, Ray in Reverse, The Watermelon King, O Great Rosenfeld, Off the Map, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician and the Kings and Queens of Roam, and I'm so thrilled to have him here. Thank you so, so much, Daniel!

You've had a variety of odd jobs before you became a writer. Tell us about the transformation.

It actually didn't feel like a transformation to me.  I was a writer long before I was a writer. I negotiated my work life -- every part of my life, really -- so I would have more time to write, more opportunities to learn, to read, to surround myself with words. So I worked in bookstores, helped direct the literacy council, drew pictures. I was lucky never to be too far from the world where I wanted to be. It's overlooked sometimes but the truth is I do the same thing now, five novels into a so-called career, that I did then, thirty years ago, five novels away from my first publication: I sit down and write. Nothing's changed. 

Big Fish is so moving. About fathers and sons, and really, about the stories we tell and the stories we make of our lives, it resonated with me on so many, many levels. Can you talk about what sparked the writing of this novel? And what was the writing like?

Looking back I think about writing this book, my sixth after five unsuccessful attempts, and like to think it felt different than the other ones did, but I don't know if that's true. I may just be making up a past to go with the future this book brought with it. It may be closer to the truth to say that I'd rather be writing than doing almost anything else, and that I get as much joy from  writing badly as I do when I appear to be writing well. I might not be able to tell the difference.  

But the book started with the title. I had those two words -- BIG FISH -- scrawled on a piece of notebook paper and taped the wall of the laundry room where I wrote and I would look at them and think how great a title that was for a book. All I needed was a book to go with it! I'd always been drawn to Greek myth, and my father was (and still is I imagine) both a magnetic and repulsive force in my life. It's always good to write toward your passions, and with this book I think, for the first time, this is what I did. My father was alive and well when I wrote it, though. I don't think I could have written a novel about a dying father if he actually had been dying. The writing came quick; it's a pretty short book. 

I always ask about the craft, because I'm obsessed by it. Big Fish has this perfect structure, where things pay off in the most astonishing ways. When you were writing the novel, did you always know where it was going, how it would end up? Or was that a surprise?

I never know the end of a story, or sometimes even its middle, when I start, and especially with this one I had no idea. I didn't even know it was going to be a novel. I was taking care of my infant son and didn't have as much time to write so the structure was dictated by his reality: I was writing a couple of hundred words a day, tales mythologizing this contemporary man, but I didn't think there was a novel in it until one appeared through the simple accumulation of pages. I didn't know how it was going to end until I was almost at the end, and I was so happily surprised that I was writing a book where such a thing could happen and actually make sense. But I had to go back and rewrite it of course so that it would make sense to somebody other than me.

You have said, "I was capable of writing and sometimes that feels like magic," which is accurate and wonderful. Can you talk about that please?

I tried to do something other than write, to work a real job, because I really do think -- without being overly-dramatic -- that if you can not be a writer than you should not be a writer. It's not remunerative, hard work that often ends in ashes. But it gave me something I didn't get anywhere else, and that's still the case. Just hearing what words sound like when they rub together as I write them -- that's such a simple pure joy to me. I am so easily entertained by that. And that's just the beginning. 

It's rare for an author to have both a film and a Broadway show of his or her work. Did you have any input in either? Was it a strange experience to see your work in another medium?

It's always strange to see one thing become another, completely different thing: the question is whether it's good strange or bad strange, and my experience with the transmogrification has been good. I'm lucky in that my story was adopted and adapted by seriously talented people. I love what they did with the story, movie and musical. I played a very minor part in both. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

The haiku I'm writing, adapted from my novel Big Fish:

He hides behind lies
and charm. I do not know him.
My father's a fish.

Not really. 

I'm working on a novel. I've also written a script we're casting now. I love it. It's based on this short film.

-- DHW 

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